Federal Diary: Health insurance costs rise at lower rate, but they still rise

Joe Davidson
Columnist September 27, 2011

The good news and the bad news is that health insurance premiums for non-postal federal employees and all retirees will increase an average of 3.8 percent in 2012.

The increase certainly is much lower than the 7.3 percent jump for this year. But when your pay is frozen, as federal pay is through this year and next, the premium boost amounts to another hole in your wallet. The 3.8 percent is the average overall increase, including the government and employee shares,” according to the Office of Personnel Management. “The employee increase will average 3.5 percent.”

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

“Our most popular plan is increasing rates by just 1.6 percent, saving money for our employees, and all taxpayers. Other plans also have low rate increases,” said OPM Director John Berry.

But that “saving money” spin doesn’t sway those who pay. The 3.8 percent increase is the lowest since 2008 in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP). But it’s still an increase, even if it’s a lower increase than what’s found with many private-sector employers. So it’s hard to convince wage-stagnant federal employees that they are saving money, particularly when they also face an increase in their pension contributions, as the Obama administration has proposed.

R.C. Friedman posted this comment on washingtonpost.com: “The bottom line is federal employees will have another reduction in their disposable income. No one should be taking a bow for this.”

Dennis Jameson, a civilian Air Force employee in Anchorage, weighed in via
e-mail:

“While an average increase of 3.8 percent doesn’t sound like much, I for one think it’s outrageous that Congress can freeze our pay, limit any job performance awards to next to nothing for two years and allow the largest insurance companies in the U.S. to increase our rates.

“My rates for myself and spouse are already $400 per month with the government paying another $600 on top of that, with large deductibles. I think it’s out of control and the government employee is taking the brunt of costs savings while billions of dollars are flowing out of this country to help ungrateful countries.”

In dollars and cents, the OPM says “on average, enrollees with self only coverage will pay $2.32 more per bi-weekly pay period; enrollees with family coverage will pay $6.18 more.”

The increases were generally modest, in part because the cost of prescriptions is dropping as more generic medicines become available.

Walt Francis, principal author of Checkbook’s annual “Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees,” noted that the 3.8 percent increase is higher than the consumer price index, “so it’s not like they licked the problem, but still, that’s a low number.”

Averages, of course, obscure details. And the details show a mixed picture, even within the largest federal health insurance provider.

The standard and basic Blue Cross Blue Shield plans cover about 44 percent and 17 percent, respectively, of federal employees. The self-only and family rates for Blue Cross standard will be about 1 percent less next year. Yet, the increase for the Blues basic self and family options will jump 7.5 percent.

In real terms, that means “Standard Option out-of-pocket cost will decrease by $0.81 for single coverage for a biweekly total out-of-pocket cost of $85.58. The family out-of-pocket biweekly premium is $198.48, representing a decrease of $0.72 from 2011 rates,” according to a Blues news release.

“For Basic Option the employee out-of-pocket contribution will increase by $3.93 for single and by $9.20 for family coverage. For single coverage, the new biweekly total will be $56.25. The new biweekly total for family coverage will be $131.73.”

While Postal Service employees generally pay a lower percentage of their entire health insurance premium than other federal workers, the average premium increase for postal employees, who have a different mix of plans, will be 4.5 percent next year.

Postal Service officials say they can get a deal that’s at least as good for their workers, while allowing the agency to solve some of its financial problems, if the USPS is permitted to quit the FEHBP.

Anthony Vegliante, chief human resources officer for the Postal Service, said he thinks the USPS can provide “the same and possibly even better health-care choices” in a separate program, and “its our managerial and fiduciary responsibility” to do so.

The USPS proposed withdrawing from the FEHBP and from the federal retirement program in August, when it also asked Congress to allow it to circumvent the no-layoff provisions in its union contracts.

During an interview Tuesday, Vegliante said circumventing the contracts is not an “all or nothing” proposal. But he showed no such backing away from the plan to pull out of the health-care program, even though it hasn’t been endorsed by the White House or developed much support in Congress.

“I don’t have any back-up lights,” he said.

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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