Employees Face Big Hike in Health-Care Costs

By Steve Vogel
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Federal government employees can expect a big jump in their health-care costs in 2010, officials said Tuesday.

Employees enrolled in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program will pay an average 8.8 percent more in health-care costs, according to figures released by the Office of Personnel Management.

The increase averages $5.98 per paycheck for individual health-care coverage, and a $12.87 increase for employees whose plans cover families, the OPM said. The increase compares with a 7.9 percent jump in 2009 and a 2.9 percent increase in 2008, according to the OPM.

"An 8.8 percent increase is not an increase that we feel comfortable with," Nancy Kichak, OPM associate director for strategic human resources policy, told reporters. "It's not one that we would like to see our enrollees bear, but unfortunately we're a victim of the market."

Blue Cross Blue Shield rates will increase 15 percent for self-only coverage and 12 percent for family coverage, the company said. Enrollees will have to pay more thanks to a wider range of benefits and the company's wide network of providers, said Jena Estes, vice president of Blue Cross Blue Shield's federal employee program. The average age of program participants is 62, an older pool that requires more complex medical care.

"That tends to drive the cost up," Estes said. Despite the price increase, Blue Cross enjoys a 97 percent retention rate among participants and plans to launch more wellness programs next year to promote healthy living.

"We have a very strong commitment to managing the costs and managing that trend. You'll see a real strong focus on coordinating the care and managing the total care," Estes said.

"This is an enormous increase that erodes federal employees' standard of living," Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement. "Affordable health care is essential in attracting and retaining a stable, high-quality workforce."

The American Federation of Government Employees expressed "grave concern" at the news. "FEHBP is getting more and more unaffordable for more people," said Jacqueline Simon, AFGE public policy director.

Out of the Dark Ages

After his confirmation as Interior secretary, Ken Salazar was dismayed at his inability to send an e-mail to all of his 67,000 employees, or to hear anything back from them.

"It was very frustrating," Salazar said Tuesday. "Our whole information system was operating in the dark ages of technology."

Last week, after the information technology department conquered multiple e-mail server and other problems, Salazar sent his first all-hands e-mail, announcing a suggestion box to which employees can send him ideas. "It's an important first step in using information technology," he said.

For years, the Department of Interior has lagged behind other federal agencies in the technology realm. Shoddy computer security has persisted for years and led a federal judge several times to order the department to disconnect from the Internet.

Attempting to put a new face on Interior, Salazar launched the department's YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter accounts.

The YouTube channel, http://www.youtube.com/USInterior, features video produced by the Interior and will also include "highlight" videos produced by various bureaus.

Salazar, following in the footsteps of Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, also has his own Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SecretarySalazar.

He is already hearing from citizens complaining about a range of issues, from pesticides in national parks to corruption on Indian reservations, as well as from one Facebook user doubtful that Salazar has anything to do with the postings. "You all are killing me . . . the Secretary isn't reading or writing anything on his FB page . . . it's probably some GS-4 admin type," Wayne Belcher wrote last week.

"That is me," Salazar said Tuesday.

Interior is using its Flickr page, http://www.flickr.com/photos/USInterior, to post photos from Salazar's events and travels, and plans to post historic photos from the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service and other bureaus. The latest news involving the department can be followed via http://www.twitter.com/USInteriorNews.

The new media sites are a far cry from the Interior's recent past. A decade-old, multibillion-dollar lawsuit by Native Americans accuses the government of mismanaging lands that the Interior held in trust for them, and of failing to adequately account for billions of dollars in royalties for mineral and grazing rights.

Concerned that computer security breaches at the Interior allowed hackers access to hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties from Indian lands, Judge Royce C. Lamberth issued an order in 2001 for the entire department to disconnect from the Internet, cutting off access to external Web sites and external e-mail. Most of the department was soon back on line, though Lamberth has ordered three more disconnections.

Five bureaus were offline until 2008: the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Office of the Special Trustee, Office of Hearings and Appeals, Office of Historical Trust Accounting and the Solicitor's Office. Problems have continued. A 2008 report by its inspector general found that the department had "persistently failed to meet minimum standards in information security."

Salazar has convened a working group to address the shortcomings and said improvements have been made. "It's as safe as it can be, though I can't vouch for it being failsafe," he said.

Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this column. Joe Davidson is away. He will resume writing this column when he returns. Contact Federal Diary at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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