A combative Donald J. Devine, director of the Office of Personnel Management, yesterday vigorously defended his handling of the government's health insurance program and said during a rancorous congressional hearing that court rulings overturning his cuts in insurance benefits could cost taxpayers from $200 million to $300 million.
In a series of sharp and occasionally sarcastic exchanges with members of a House subcommittee looking into his efforts to reduce health insurance benefits for 10 million federal workers, retirees and dependents, Devine said he was forced to order those reductions or face premium increases of 60 percent for the average federal employe.
Devine said problems with the government's health insurance program -- which have kept him in federal court for weeks and left him at odds with federal employe unions and several members of Congress -- were not of his making but rather were the result of continued neglect by previous administrations and OPM officials.
"I'll be the first to concede there were other methods of handling the increase in health coverage costs , but I believe I took the most responsible course," said Devine, whose testimony concluded three days of hearings by the House Post Office and Civil Service's subcommittee on compensation and employe benefits.
Then the 44-year-old Republican from Maryland launched into some "personal" remarks he said he wanted to get into the record "before the interrogation begins."
Devine, calling his comments "quite blunt," said the problems of the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program have existed for 20 years and could be traced to what he said are "Democratic-induced" political attitudes and behavior that the public has now rejected with the election of Ronald Reagan.
Democrats on the House panel accused Devine of trying to blame everyone but himself for the crisis they said OPM had caused in insurance coverage for federal workers. Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.), who chairs the full House committee, took particular umbrage at the OPM director's remarks.
"You've established a reputation around this town of sort of thriving on controversy," said Ford, who called Devine's remarks "one of the most arrogant, insulting attacks . . . not only on the Democratic party, which you have a right to do, but on the democratic process, with a small d."
The committee chairman, clearly angered, also recalled a private conversation he said he had with Devine, during which, Ford related, the OPM director said he wouldn't seek additional funding from Congress because then he wouldn't "get credit" for helping to cut the budget. Devine said he didn't recall making that statement.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Devine's testimony reminded him of the rhetoric of "another Maryland Republican -- Spiro Agnew."
Last week OPM was ordered to begin holding an "open season," beginning Monday, to allow federal workers to shop for the health insurance plan best suited to their needs and pocketbooks.
Devine said yesterday that the agency will hold an open season through the end of December but is appealing court rulings that have nullified some of his coverage cuts. If the agency loses its appeal, he said, it will need to seek a supplemental appropriation from Congress for $200 million to $300 million.
Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), subcommittee chairman, said the panel seriously is considering legislation that would curb some of OPM's power in setting health insurance benefits. She said Devine's efforts to cut coverage had "demoralized" federal workers, and she disputed his defense of his actions.
Criticizing what she said was Devine's belated recognition of fund shortages in the program, Oakar said: "You bear the responsibility . . . and you ought not to blame the courts or Congress or anyone else."