Correction to This Article
The Dec. 3 Federal Diary said premiums for the Government Employees Health Association and American Postal Workers Union health insurance plans are not going up. That referred only to the high-deductible and consumer-driven plans.

Help with the homework on health plans

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, December 3, 2009

One of the good things about being a federal employee is the large number of health insurance companies available to them.

One of the difficult things about being a federal employee is picking from the large number of health insurance companies available to them.

Difficult isn't the same as bad, but it can be confusing. Even so, as government workers face a Dec. 14 deadline to choose a health plan, before the close of Open Season, they remain in a fortunate situation.

They are fortunate, particularly given the leaky state of the nation's health-care system, to have such a wide range of insurance plans to choose from. Depending on their location, employees generally have about two dozen plans looking for their business, out of more than 200 plans nationally in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Many private companies provide employees only one option. Others provide two or three. Two dozen is unheard of in the business world.

The 8 million people, including employees and retirees and their families and survivors, covered by the program are a very attractive market. In addition to all of the insurance companies, they also attract a variety of tools that make the choice much easier than it would be otherwise.

The Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees, published annually by Washington Consumers' Checkbook magazine, is a very helpful and popular resource that some agencies provide to employees at no charge. It's available in book form and at PlanSmartChoice, at, is an online service that helps users estimate their health-care costs and, like Checkbook, assists them in comparing plans. Of course, loads of information about the program is available at the Office of Personnel Management Web site, at

The current issue of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees magazine also has useful information for the organization's members. One article lists 14 states where "fee-for-service plans reimburse any licensed medical practitioner for all covered services within the scope of that license, even if they wouldn't normally cover them in states not designated as medically underserved."

Being fortunate to have so many choices doesn't stop workers from being upset with the increasing cost of insurance coverage. "Federal employees, more than we've ever seen before, are concerned about the cost of their health insurance," said Colleen Murphy, president and chief executive of Asparity Decision Solutions, which runs PlanSmartChoice.

Blue Cross/Blue Shield subscribers, who make up more than half of those covered by the federal program, face premium increases of 12 to 15 percent next year. And Walton Francis, primary author of Checkbook's guide, points out that premiums for the Mail Handlers Benefit Plan jump 42 percent. At the same time, he notes that premiums for American Postal Workers Union and Government Employees Health Association plans, better known as APWU and GEHA, will not go up.

But if there is one thing Francis emphasizes, it's look beyond the premiums.

Checkbook's guide provides the average cost for each plan in various age and family categories. The average cost is the annual premium plus the average out-of-pocket expenses for a particular category. Here are examples of the average yearly cost for General Schedule workers from the guide.

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