Federal Diary: How to avoid drowning in Open Season's flood of choices

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, November 5, 2009

It's that distinct time of year when the leaves fall, the air turns brisk and the major American sports seasons overlap.

Another season opens in a few days, one that is as central to the lives of federal employees as Sunday afternoon is to a fantasy football freak.

Open Season begins Monday and runs though Dec. 14. During that time, 8 million people covered by the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program, including current employees, dependents and retirees, can choose their health insurance plans.

There are more than 200 health plan options, though the number offered in any one area varies from place to place. The Office of Personnel Management Web site says 27 choices are available to people living in my D.C. Zip code. That's a huge number compared to the one or two options many private employers offer their staffs. And that element of choice is one reason the program has been mentioned as a model for the health insurance overhaul efforts that have consumed official Washington for months.

Speaking of the health-care reform effort, some workers are needlessly worried that it could cause their premiums to rise by allowing all Americans to enroll in the federal program, which would expand the pool of people companies would cover. Relax, that's not going to happen.

That was among many issues raised Wednesday during a health insurance information fair at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. For four hours, employees were able to gather information and ask questions of company representatives.

"I'm looking to see if any plan covers alternative medicine," said Ken West, a member of the NIH maintenance staff. "I'm trying right now to do a comparison."

Comparison shopping is the name of the game during Open Season, but so much choice can be a perplexing thing. There are tools to help Frankie and Flo Fed wade through the big load of information that's available.

One popular resource is the Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees, published annually by Washington Consumers' Checkbook magazine, and made available at no charge by some agencies to their employees. More information is at http://www.checkbook.org. Another is PlanSmartChoice (http://www.plansmartchoice.com), an online service that allows workers to compare options from various plans and estimate their health-care costs. And, of course, Uncle Sam has lots of information about the program at his Web site, http://www.opm.gov/insure.

To illustrate the wisdom of making a well-considered choice, Walton Francis, chief writer of the Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees, noted that the average premium increase next year will be 8.8 percent. "But that hides that some had premium decreases, some had zero percent increase," he said as NIH employees picked up brochures and promotional gadgets spread among the many folding tables.

He pointed to plans of the American Postal Workers Union and Government Employees Health Association, better known as APWU and GEHA, that will have no premium increase next year.

At the other end of the spectrum is a Mail Handlers Benefit Plan, which that he said will have a 42 percent premium increase. The average also masks the 12 percent to 15 percent increase that Blue Cross/Blue Shield subscribers will face; they make up more than half of those covered by the federal program.

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