Questions, doubts about plan to allow all in federal employees health insurance program

Joe Davidson
Columnist November 6, 2013

Open Season, that four-week period when choices can be made in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), begins Monday. More than eight million workers, retirees and their families will be able to choose health insurance through a program that is a good, solid fringe benefit for government workers.

So good, that a key House committee chairman doesn’t want feds to keep the program to themselves.

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

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, thinks FEHBP should be open to all Americans — all 317 million of them. He has introduced legislation to do just that.

“The Equal Healthcare Access Act offers Americans access to the same health insurance plans long enjoyed by Members of Congress and their families,” he said. “This is a free market approach to healthcare with government playing the very limited role of helping small businesses and individuals come together to get a better price for healthcare — much like larger businesses can already negotiate on their own.”

It’s not a new idea.

“In one form or another it’s been around for 20 or 30 years,” said Walt Francis, a health economist and chief author of Checkbook’s annual “Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees.”

Issa is a fierce critic of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, calling it “this train wreck of a law.” So it is easy to imagine that his legislation is designed as another jab at a measure Republicans desperately and relentlessly have tried to kill. Yet, it must be noted that among the seven co-sponsors, there is a lone Democrat, Rep. William Clay (Mo.). He did not respond to a request for comment.

Party politics aside, would increasing FEHBP almost 40 fold, in terms of population served, be a good thing?

It certainly “would be very complicated to administer,” Francis predicted.

Employee union leaders don’t like Issa’s plan. The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, whose members need a lot of health care, hasn’t taken a position “due to the lack of concrete information,” said Jessica Klement, the organization’s legislative director.

More than one union leader suggested Issa look to Obamacare.

“If Chairman Issa is so concerned with providing good insurance options to all Americans then he should be supporting the Affordable Care Act,” said Matthew Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers. Issa’s proposal “would be the equivalent of requiring a private sector employer to open up their employee health insurance plan to everyone, which is nonsensical.”

While saying he did not want to pass judgment on the bill, Francis raised serious questions that led him to conclude: “I think Issa did this to make a political point. I don’t think it’s to be taken seriously as an actual policy proposal.”

Among the questions:

●How would premiums be collected? If paid to Uncle Sam, what additional bureaucracy would be needed?

The legislation doesn’t say and Issa’s office is vague.

“OPM would work with non-federal enrollees on collection,” said Ali Ahmad, Issa’s senior communications adviser.

●The government pays up to 75 percent of the cost of insurance for its workers and annuitants. Would Sam do that for everybody? No one expects that.

“The legislation creates no new subsidies,” Ahmad said. “Non-federal employers can elect to provide premium support for their employees enrolled [in] FEHBP as a benefit. Other subsidies and tax credits offered under current law would be available to non-federal enrollees.”

●Would everyone be in the same risk pool or would feds and non-feds be segregated for purposes of determining premiums? There would be no separate risk pools, according to Ahmad.

That means premiums likely would jump for federal employees, according to Francis. “The effects on the federal enrollees could be huge,” he said.

You don’t have to be a health economist to know that federal workers don’t want their premiums going up to allow others in their program.

“Federal employees should not be in the position of subsidizing non-employee health care costs,” said National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley.

Adds Biggs: “This bill is nothing more than a gimmick.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

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