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Bill would extend benefits to same-sex partners

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Legislation that would allow a range of benefits for same-sex domestic partners of federal employees gained a boost last week with the announcement of 20 new Senate co-sponsors and the endorsement of 35 organizations.

The announcement from the bipartisan chief sponsors of the bill, Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), came in the wake of the Obama administration’s decision to allow, for the first time, employer-sponsored health benefits for the same-sex partner of a federal worker.

That decision, however, only affected a single employee, Karen Golinski, a federal lawyer in California. She successfully sued in federal district court to have the Defense of Marriage Act, also known as DOMA, declared unconstitutional. DOMA says marriage is between heterosexuals. Until now it has prevented the government from providing benefits to all its staffers.

In addition to health benefits, under the Lieberman/Collins Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, same-sex domestic partners of federal workers living together in a committed relationship could get retirement, family and medical leave and long-term care benefits.

The bill would place the government in line with almost 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies, including top federal contractors, and 50 percent of employers with 5,000 or more workers, 24 states and several hundred local jurisdictions that offer benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of their employees, according to Lieberman’s office.

Curbing costs

From the Federal Eye blog, my colleague Eric Yoder writes:

Insurance companies participating in the health-care program for federal employees have been told to continue to try to hold down premium costs through wellness initiatives and controls on prescription drug spending.

The instruction came in the annual “call letter” issued Thursday by the Office of Personnel Management, which runs the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. The letter starts the process of negotiating coverage and premium terms for the following calendar year.

Almost all federal employees and retirees and their spouses and children up to age 26 are eligible to participate in the program, which has about 200 participating plans. Several plans are national in scope, while the large majority are regional health maintenance organizations. Wellness programs and prescription drug cost controls have been part of the FEHBP for years, but the new call letter re-emphasizes and expands those initiatives.

“The health and wellness of FEHB program members continues to be one of our most important priorities. Overweight and obesity continue to be widespread problems with strong implications for health-care costs, chronic illness and disease management,” the OPM said in the letter.

Plans that have obesity-reduction programs in place are to report the results, while those that don’t have such programs are expected to craft them.

The OPM also said it expects carriers to offer incentives for enrollees to participate in such programs and stick with them in the long-term. “This includes incentives for enrollees who complete health risk assessments, who adhere to disease management programs, or who participate in wellness activities or treatment plans aimed at managing and improving health status,” the letter said.

Another major focus will be on prescription drug costs, which now account for almost a third of the costs in the program, OPM director for health care and insurance John O’Brien told a meeting of insurance companies Thursday. The OPM wants the share of generic drugs to increase from 70 to 75 percent of all prescriptions dispensed, and wants to hold down cost growth in especially expensive specialty drugs.

The letter also instructed the health carriers to comply with several provisions of the Affordable Care Act that affect the program. These include eliminating annual limits on essential health benefits, ending limits on eligibility to participate in certain clinical trials and covering certain preventive care and screenings for women under policy set by the Health and Human Services Department.

The FEHBP is the largest employer-sponsored health benefits program in the country, according to the OPM, with about 8 million participants and $43 billion annually in premiums. Enrollees pay about 30 percent of the total premium cost, with the government paying the rest.

O’Brien said that 10 new carriers are expected to join the program in 2013, more new entries than the last five years combined.

Eric Yoder contributed to this column.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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