GAO calls on Postal Service to prefund retiree benefits

Joe Davidson
Columnist January 8, 2013

U.S. Postal Service officials and postal unions have long pushed Congress to relieve the agency of its obligation to prefund retiree health benefits. It’s a burden other agencies don’t share and one that officials say the Postal Service can’t afford. Defaults on prefunding payments total $11.1 billion.

But not everyone agrees that removing or substantially reducing the prefunding requirement is the best way out of the USPS hole.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

A recent Government Accountability Office report says the “USPS should prefund its retiree health benefit liabilities to the maximum extent that its finances permit.”

The GAO said that deferring the prefunding payments “could increase costs for future ratepayers and increase the possibility that USPS may not be able to pay for some or all of its liability.”

The report said the Postal Service’s financial condition makes it difficult for the agency “to fully fund the remaining $48 billion unfunded liability over the remaining 44 years of the schedule” set up by the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act.

USPS officials say they can pay $0.00. The Postal Service is losing $25 million a day.

“If Congress was to eliminate the requirement for USPS to pay down its unfunded liability on retiree health care, taxpayers would almost certainly pick up the bill,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). “USPS needs to cut costs, not cheat taxpayers or its own employees.”

The GAO report gives something to both sides, saying that the USPS should prefund its retiree health benefits, while acknowledging that it currently is too broke to do it.

In a response included in the GAO report, Joseph Corbett, the USPS chief financial officer and executive vice president, said the Postal Service “does not have the financial resources to make the prefunding payments required by current law.”

He criticized the GAO for releasing a report that did not include the controversial USPS proposal to sponsor its own health-care plan, outside of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan that now covers postal workers.

“Allowing the Postal Service to gain control of its own health care program would save money, reduce or eliminate the current unfunded liability, and allow for better management of health care costs going forward,” Corbett said.

Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, called on Congress to “reject the GAO’s policy myopia. . . . Government records show that 80 percent of all the USPS red ink stems directly from prefunding.”

Report: Close the digital divide

Uncle Sam needs to get with the digital program.

That’s the takeaway from a report — with the appropriate title #ConnectedGov — on the government’s use of technology and social media. It is being released Wednesday by the Partnership for Public Service, in collaboration with the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm.

The report identifies innovative digital programs in seven agencies, demonstrating that “there are places in government that are doing immensely creative and impactful things,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership.

Yet, the report also says the government’s “adoption and use of digital technologies remains uneven across federal agencies.” In some cases, “federal employees are still prohibited from even accessing social media sites.” The report saves those agencies from embarrassment by not naming them.

The seven programs cited in the report are:

●●A State Department app that provides people in developing countries access to English-language instruction via cellphone.

●An Energy Department site for collaboration among employees in different locations.

●A Federal Emergency Management Agency social media program that provides real-time disaster information and allows for quick responses to residents.

●Air Force Medical Service Facebook pages used to improve health service delivery.

●The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s system for reporting flu outbreaks.

●The National Archives and Records Administration’s use of Wikipedia to recruit volunteers and reach outside experts.

●The National Aeronautics and Space Administration apps used to identify people with scientific knowledge.

While all agencies are digitally engaged to some extent, according to Grant McLaughlin, a Booz Allen vice president, the report indicates that some are moving with the speed of a dial-up connection.

The reason, he said, might be that greater use of digital media means “less control by public affairs [offices]. Social media does not necessarily fit into the traditional realm of public affairs.”

The report considers and debunks several myths, including “you have to be on the cutting edge of technology to use social media.”

The reality, according to the study: “Many of the common social media sites, such as blogs and Facebook, can reach broad audiences and do the job that agencies want. For example, Facebook still has more than twice as many users as Twitter, Foursquare and Pinterest combined.”

The message: Agency managers who don’t keep up to date will be left behind.

Those who do keep up “understand that the use of social media is not just a passing trend, but rather a mechanism for advancing effectiveness in their program and in government overall,” the report concludes. “They are expanding outreach, dispensing information, improving communication, gaining knowledge, improving transparency and accountability, and achieving their missions. Equally important, they are meeting the expectations of the public they serve.”

The Partnership for Public Service has a content sharing relationship with The Washington Post.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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