Legislation that would enhance dental and vision benefits for federal employees gained House approval yesterday and was sent to President Bush.
The bill would authorize the Office of Personnel Management to set up a program to provide dental and vision coverage to federal employees and retirees. The program would be voluntary, and enrollees would pay the entire cost.
Under the bill, OPM next year would solicit bids from health insurance companies and give them wide leeway in designing plans. They could offer varying levels of benefits and options while using the purchasing power of a large pool of enrollees to hold down premiums.
The dental and vision program would not be available until 2006, according to the bill. Coverage would be available regardless of whether an individual was enrolled in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.
The House passed the bill -- sponsored by Sens. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) and Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) with bipartisan support -- on a voice vote.
In a statement after the vote, Collins said: "The federal government's most important asset is its human capital. Federal employees need and deserve increased access to dental and vision benefits."
The bill, despite widespread support in Congress, appeared in jeopardy this year when it wasn't brought up during the lame-duck session that ended before Thanksgiving. But lawmakers and their aides redoubled their efforts when they learned Congress would come back into session this month to deal with other issues.
Yesterday, Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, and Danny K. Davis (Ill.), the ranking Democrat on the House civil service subcommittee, served as managers for the bill and spoke on its behalf.
Approval of the legislation has been awaited eagerly by numerous federal employees and retirees who see their current benefits, provided through FEHBP, as meager.
"There has been a groundswell among federal employees and annuitants through numerous surveys and focus groups on this issue," Rep. Tom Davis said. "More than any benefit, they want better coverage for dental and vision care."
Davis said that FEHBP, though a model in some respects, had not kept pace with the private sector on dental and vision coverage in part because the Office of Personnel Management, about 15 years ago, "stopped allowing plans to add new dental and vision packages or to enhance packages they already had in place."
OPM officials have said that decision was made as part of an effort to hold down the costs of medical insurance and protect key health care benefits.
In his remarks, Rep. Danny Davis announced that OPM has pledged to assess hearing benefits available to FEHBP enrollees and to study the feasibility of expanding hearing benefits to federal employees, retirees and their dependents.
Davis had sought to include a study in the bill, but the provision was dropped from the final version. Instead, key lawmakers and OPM exchanged letters setting out the requirements for a study that is to be completed by Sept. 30, 2005. The study will look at possible coverage of diagnostic services, balance assessments and treatments, hearing aids and rehabilitation for hearing loss.
The bill also would require OPM to review the possibility of continuing health insurance coverage for full-time students beyond age 22 under FEHBP family policies. Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, singled out that provision in applauding the bill's passage.
New Owner for Journal
The Public Manager, a journal "for practitioners" and others interested in public administration issues, has been acquired by LMI, a not-for-profit consulting firm in McLean.
Donald L. Pilling, president of LMI, said the firm's research institute will serve as the sponsor for the Public Manager.
Harry Featherstone, a director at LMI, will become the journal's new publisher. Thomas W. Novotny, the journal's longtime publisher, died in April.
LMI will retain the journal's editor in chief, Warren Master, and the board of directors that oversees the publication's operations, the firm said.