The 9.2 million people in the federal health insurance program will be stuck with their current insurance plan well into 1982, even though many plans will reduce benefit levels next year and many in January will boost premiums anywhere from 5 percent to 50 percent.
Office of Personnel Management has made official what we warned you about last Tuesday, namely that the "open season" enrollment period due to begin today will be postponed indefinitely.
Normally federal workers and retirees get a chance at the end of each year to shop around for better (or less costly) insurance plans to cover them for the upcoming year. There are 126 health insurance carriers in the program ranging from the giant Blue Cross/Blue Shield to small health maintenance organizations (HMOs) in specific geographic locations plus a large number of union-backed plans.
In metro Washington, 447,000 people -- from members of Congress to postal clerks and retirees -- buy health insurance through the federal program. Counting dependents, the federal program covers nearly half the population here.
But the OPM, which has been embroiled in a battle with insurance plans over benefit cuts OPM wants them to make, says that time has run out and it will not offer an open season enrollment period in the foreseeable future. (The American Federation of Government Employees and National Federation of Federal Employees have challenged OPM's right to defer the open season. That motion, in the form of a contempt citation against OPM Director Donald Devine, is pending in U.S. District Court).
OPM, in a bulletin dated Nov. 12, will advise heads of federal agencies that the open season (originally scheduled to start today and run through Dec. 11) "shall be, and the same hereby is, postponed to a time which will be announced hereafter, or to the applicable period during 1982 as determined pursuant to 5 C.F.R. 890.301(d), whichever is earlier." That means the next open season could be a year away.
Cancellation of the open season that is freezing you in your current health insurance plan will come as good news to a few insurance plans that had anticipated losing thousands of subscribers next year because rates will go up and benefits will be cut back. Most of the plans will raise deductible levels (some have none) to at least $200.
Despite the coming OPM freeze order, this isn't necessarily the last chapter in the 1981 insurance fight. Unions that have been battling OPM, over benefits, abortions and rates, are still in court. And there is always the possibility that Congress may order OPM to have an open season before the end of 1982, although most members find the insurance issue as confusing and frustrating as you do.
But for now, the open season is postponed. You are locked into your health plan, even if rates jump, and benefits drop, for at least part of 1982, and perhaps all of it.