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From budgets to benefits, our mailbag overflows

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 10:01 PM

The Federal Diary gets lots of mail, some of it fit to print. We give readers a chance to speak out by occasionally printing a few of their letters, which may be edited for clarity and length.

The first one concerns the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Open season, during which employees and retirees may choose their insurance plans, runs through Dec. 13, not the erroneous date published in Tuesday's Diary.

I am a retired federal employee. My wife and I are both covered by health and dental insurance. We have no other dependents. The dental plan has three premium rates: single, married and married with other dependents. We therefore pay a higher rate than single individuals but a lower rate than families with dependent children. Has [the Office of Personnel Management] ever considered establishing a three-tier rate structure for health insurance?

As it stands now, by paying the same rates as families with children, it appears that we retirees are basically subsidizing those workers.

- John Pride, Washington

OPM provided this response:

Actually, it is specified in the FEHB law that only two rating categories are defined - self and family. Because FEHB covers retirees, in addition to active employees and their families, the premiums for a self plus one (or married) category have been determined by OPM actuaries to be more costly than the family category for FEHB. So OPM has not pursued a legislative change to this policy.

Airport security

Full-body scans create new friction for airport screeners:

Americans are a pretty easygoing people with security vs. personal privacy, so I don't expect much in the way of pat-down protests. However, pat-downs of those from a number of foreign-born cultures could very easily be problematic. An obvious example are women from cultures where modesty is required at all times. Care to pat down a woman in a burka? Now that will raise a stink, and it should.

- Allen Mears, McLean

Budget-busting

A column about proposals to cut the federal workforce and freeze pay drew divergent views:

As a retired federal worker, I appreciate my retirement benefits. I earned them and forwent higher-paying attorney jobs in the private sector. Part of my reward was the ability to enjoy an excellent defined-benefit retirement. I don't feel bad accepting my monthly retirement. Want to reduce the federal workforce? Pass laws that are less complex and have more detail so it is less difficult to administer them.

- Neil Richman, retired

from Veterans Affairs

Stop crying about abused Feds. They haven't been drafted. They are not being flogged in the work place. If they don't like their jobs, they can quit. They won't. They never do.

Those union-friendly salary comparisons should cite some underpaid jobs and factor in the pensions and health benefits.

- Hugh Long, Defense Department retiree, Warrenton

Retirees left on hold

OPM knows its management of annuity claims has been a big mess. It recently announced plans to add 80 people to a staff of 130 in an attempt to make a significant dent in the time it takes to process retirement benefits for federal employees. That can't happen soon enough for this reader:

I read with great interest your Federal Diary column of October 21, which discussed the dysfunctional retiree processing at OPM and the plans underway to hire more personnel to address the current backlog of retiree annuity claims. While your column stated that it now takes an average of 138 days, or five months, to process a federal retiree's initial retirement request and establish the correct annuity amount, I have been waiting well over five months. I retired on January 1, 2010, and still do not have my final annuity.

A very frustrating aspect of this dysfunctional system is OPM's apparent inability to provide any type of service in responding to new retirees' questions regarding the status of their annuity. I have attempted to contact OPM directly via phone to find out the status of my annuity but have met only with voice mail boxes that are "full" and thus not accepting new messages, and phones that ring continuously in excess of 30 minutes without anyone answering, or even a recorded message being available. The OPM Web site does not provide any ability to communicate with a reviewer electronically.

I have tried to work through the personnel office at the federal agency from which I retired, but the HR specialist has also not been able to obtain any useful information on the estimated date by which OPM's annuity processing will be completed. Apparently, my file was not assigned to an OPM reviewer until July 14, 2010, when the HR specialist made the first inquiry on my behalf. I assume that there must be many other federal retirees in the same situation of putting future plans on hold because of the uncertainty of when their actual full annuity will be forthcoming.

- Patricia A. Thompson, Annandale

Update: On Tuesday, after Thompson sent this letter to the Federal Diary, she said OPM told her that the agency "recreated" her file but that she "still had no indication of how long it may take" before she sees the final annuity adjustment.

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