Fed retirees glad to hear Obamacare doesn’t hurt, but strengthens their health insurance

Joe Davidson
Columnist November 18, 2013

Those with the thinning gray hair, walking canes and a growing list of ailments are the lucky ones — at least in some ways.

They are federal retirees, like the seniors attending a health benefits forum Monday at the Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and a panel of experts discussed the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) at the event he sponsored with the Maryland Federation of Chapters of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE).

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

Like other members of the regional congressional delegation, Van Hollen holds the annual forum during Open Season, the period when people can change health-care plans. This year it runs through Dec. 9.

Unlike active federal employees, retirees have not had their income cut by furloughs or limited by the three-year pay freeze. Nor do the seniors face having to contribute more toward their retirement benefits, a development that could emerge for current workers from the congressional conference committee trying to resolve differences in budgets approved by the Senate and the House.

Yet, the retirees feel a kinship with their colleagues still on the job. They reject proposals for additional hits on the pocketbooks of workers.

In fact, the first question from the audience was about potential congressional budget action that could negatively affect the federal workforce. Van Hollen criticized a Republican proposal that would require active workers to pay 5 percent more of salary over five years toward their retirement benefits.

This “effectively would be a pay cut,” he said, “because it would mean for those current federal employees more comes out of their paycheck to go to their federal retirement without an increase in their overall federal retirement benefits.”

House Republicans approved a 5 percent increase last year. Van Hollen said it “remains very much a part of my Republican colleagues’ proposal.” Not mentioned was the Obama administration’s plan to hike the employee contribution by 1.2 percent of salary over three years.

The good news for retirees: Van Hollen told them he knows of “no current proposal out there for budget cutting that would affect retired federal employees.”

There was more good news.

“So many people are still concerned that the Affordable Care Act is going to affect their benefits,” said David Snell, the NARFE’s director of retirement benefit services and a panelist at the forum. “Of course, it does not.”

That’s always been the case. But with all the talk lately about Obamacare’s big problems, including reports of millions losing their insurance plans, it’s not surprising that some people might wonder.

Jim Hathaway, who retired from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency after 37 years of service, said his main concern was the impact of the law on his health insurance. He was glad to learn there is none, “because I’m satisfied with my health care.”

Van Hollen said the Affordable Care Act strengthens the FEHBP by requiring health plans to provide coverage for young adults up to age 26 and preventive care such as immunizations.

At the top of the agenda for many retirees is the cost of insurance, Snell and another panelist, Walt Francis, chief author of Checkbook’s annual “Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees,” said after the forum.

The senior citizens also want to “find out if there is something they don’t know,” Francis said.

Julian Abbott fits into that category.

The 80-year-old Social Security Administration annuitant from Silver Spring visited displays where health insurance vendors provided information about their plans. Abbott, cane in hand, attended the forum to see if “I could find something better than what I have.” Like others, he also complained about “a lot of politicians going after federal employees and retirees.”

But he left pleased, after hearing that the FEHBP seems safe, for now, from political interference.

Despite assurances, the political climate leads to a certain uneasiness among federal retirees.

“We’re always a target, especially from a certain party we won’t name,” said Klara Vida, who at age 63 is a young retiree from the surgeon general’s office. She realizes there will have to be sacrifices in the form of budget cuts and increased taxes, but it can’t always be “on the backs of feds,” she said.

Frances Rutt, the 85-year-old wife of a retired Federal Aviation Administration employee, wasn’t shy about naming names. Congress, she said, is a dysfunctional mess.

If the tea party had its way, she added, “they’d throw us all into the Potomac.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

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