Hoyer Makes Good on Health-Care Promise

By Stephen Barr
Friday, March 2, 2007

The House majority leader delivered on a promise yesterday.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) introduced a bill that would increase the government's contribution toward federal employee health-care premiums -- as he had pledged he would to two unions earlier this week.

Under the proposal, the government would pay 80 percent of the cost of premiums in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, saving the average federal worker about $500 annually. Currently, the government picks up 72 percent of premium costs.

"This legislation will help take the bite out of rising health care costs and make it easier for federal employees to afford quality health care for themselves and their families," Hoyer said in a statement.

The rate of premium growth in the federal employee program has slowed in recent years, dropping from an average increase of 12.7 percent in 2002 to an average 6.4 percent in 2006. The Office of Personnel Management, which administers the program, used financial reserves in the program to hold this year's average premium increase to 1.8 percent.

Still, a number of insurance plans in the federal program raised their premiums by more than the average 1.8 percent increase. Premiums for health maintenance organizations, for example, rose by 6.3 percent, and some Washington area federal HMOs raised their rates higher.

More than half of the federal program's enrollees, or 2.27 million people, are covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield. This year, the annual share of premiums paid by a federal employee who chose Blue Cross standard coverage will be $1,489 for individual coverage and $3,492 for family coverage.

In introducing the bill, Hoyer said that Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) has joined as the chief co-sponsor.

Hoyer has tried to lower health-care costs for federal employees and retirees in past years and promised unions, which held their annual legislative conferences this week, that he would renew his efforts. The introduction of the bill yesterday was welcomed by John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, and Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

The prospects for Hoyer's proposal are uncertain, in part because Congress is under pressure to reduce the federal deficit and rein in spending. His proposal also runs counter to a Bush administration plan, announced last month, that would reduce the government's contribution to health-care premiums for new retirees with less than 10 years of federal service.

On the Front Burner

"Welcome to the hot seat."

That's how Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, greeted Paul A. Schneider, who joined the Department of Homeland Security as undersecretary for management two months ago. Schneider came to the Hill yesterday to testify before the subcommittee on management, investigations and oversight.

Committee members expressed concern about morale of employees at Homeland Security, noting that the department got rock-bottom scores in important job-satisfaction, leadership and management areas in a survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management.

Schneider said the department plans to launch focus groups in the next 60 days to explore workforce issues and find solutions. The survey suggested that too many employees do not feel they are being recognized for their hard work and that communication between supervisors and employees needs to be improved, he said.

Efforts to reduce reliance on contractors also are underway, he told the panel, chaired by Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.). Starting this year, Schneider said the department is focusing "on developing a mature acquisition workforce through targeted recruiting and advanced training programs."

Talk Shows

Veronica Villalobos, senior attorney in the office of federal operations at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, will be the guest on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com and WFED radio (1050 AM).

Deidre A. Lee, director of management and chief acquisition officer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will be the guest on "The IBM Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. Saturday on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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