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Telework cuts federal government's losses during D.C. area snowstorms

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, March 25, 2010; B03

If there was a silver lining to the heavy clouds that dumped record amounts of snow on the Washington area this winter, it was the boost the storms gave telework as a way to keep the government running under difficult circumstances.

That boost reverberated Wednesday when a House panel advanced, with a voice vote, legislation that is likely to result in more federal employees getting permission to work at home. Although the bill was around long before the winter storms -- it was introduced a year ago Thursday -- the snows that closed D.C. area federal offices gave the legislation a greater sense of urgency.

The snowstorms "were a stark reminder of how critical telework" is, said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), sponsor of the legislation.

Telework has been promoted by the government for years, but with limited success. Despite widespread lip service extolling the value of allowing employees to work from home, telework has been stymied by the organizational culture of bureaucracies, management resistance and the need to maintain computer security.

The legislation would require Uncle Sam to take concrete action to advance telework. Agencies would adopt policies permitting their employees to work away from the office. Each agency would be required to create a new position, telework managing officer, to be responsible for ensuring the effective development and implementation of telework plans.

Under the measure approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, the Postal Service and the District of Columbia, the Office of Personnel Management would develop regulations on telework, and the General Services Administration would develop rules on telework information technology systems and security.

Understandably, Congress likes to make sure the executive branch does what it is told by the legislative branch, so administration officials get stuck writing reports. This situation is no different. The telework-managing officers would report annually on the status of their agencies' telework operations to OPM, and OPM would make an annual report to Congress on the telework programs of the various agencies.

As a result of all of this, Connolly expects the government to develop a "robust telework plan."

One part of the legislation would require agencies to have a "continuity of operations plan that uses telework, flexibility in scheduling and work arrangements." Continuity of operations plans are designed to help agencies continue working during emergencies.

It's hard to imagine how, without telework, agencies could continue operating during emergencies that prevented office buildings from opening.

And work done means money saved.

On Tuesday, OPM Director John Berry told Congress that the government had revised its estimate of the cost of lost productivity from the snow-related federal office closings. The $100 million-a-day estimate was too high because it didn't account for the growing number of teleworking federal employees, he said, and had been reduced to $71 million.

Berry, long a supporter of telework, said he wants to increase the number of federal employees who are eligible to telecommute by 50 percent by 2011. "As of 2008, our most recent figures, 61 percent of the federal workforce is eligible to telework, while 5.2 percent of federal employees regularly telework under a formal agreement," he said. Many more, however, may telework without a formal agreement.

Prescription drug costs

The subcommittee also approved, with a voice vote, a bill that's designed to bring a greater measure of transparency and oversight to the operations of pharmacy benefit managers, companies that act as middlemen between health insurance companies and drug manufacturers.

The legislation, sponsored by subcommittee Chairman Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), would apply only to those PBMs, as the managers are often called, that serve the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. He said he expects the greater transparency and oversight to result in lower prescription drug costs for federal workers.

His legislation would prohibit a PBM from being owned or controlled by a company that also owns a prescription drug manufacturer or a retail pharmacy. That provision is a direct shot at CVS Caremark, a PBM whose retail outlets are plentiful in the D.C. area.

In response to drug-switching allegations, the bill also would require drug substitutions to be approved by the patient's doctor. The PBM would be required to return 99 percent of all rebates and other drug manufacturer payments to the health insurance plan.

The FEHBP drug legislation also enhances OPM's oversight power. The agency would have full access to a variety of information needed to determine whether the health plans covering federal workers were charged appropriately for drugs purchased through PBMs.

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