The Office of Personnel Management chief Donald Devine returned to a familiar arena yesterday hoping to bowl over the Democratic opposition that has accused him of making mincemeat of the gigantic federal employe health insurance program.
Devine and several aides squared off for a tag-team match against Chairman Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and other members of the House subcommittee that handles U.S. worker fringe benefits.
Relying on a game plan, Devine stressed that the federal health program, which he says became desperately ill under Democratic control, is a lot better now.
His testimony added, almost as an aside, that the Reagan administration is considering a voucher-type system that would change the way government, and government employes, pay health premiums.
Unfortunately for Devine, a bootleg copy of his game plan (outlining which strategy to use before the subcommittee) had found its way to Oakar, Hoyer and others.
Thus armed, they accused Devine of pretending the politically sensitive voucher plan was still incubating when in fact it had already hatched and was ready to fly -- after the November elections.
Under the voucher plan -- outlined here Jan. 19 -- the government would give workers and retirees a fixed sum of money to buy health insurance from a variety of government-approved carriers.
Employes who wanted only basic coverage could pay for all their health insurance needs from the voucher. Those wanted more extended coverage and benefits would pay the difference.
Washington Post reporter Karlyn Barker said Oakar, who had a copy of Devine's how-to-handle-the-subcommittee game plan, became angry, charging that he was being intentionally vague on the status of the voucher plan. Barker reported that the supposedly confidential memo said Devine could either "unveil" the voucher plan at the hearing; take no position, or stress accomlishments under the federal health program and mention the voucher as a down-the-road possibility.
"You're presenting the voucher system as a possible option when in fact it has already been approved and you have the legislative proposal to go forward," Oakar said.
Oakar, Hoyer -- an old Maryland political foe of Devine--and the OPM director traded blasts about how far along the voucher plan really is. In the memo, Devine suggested that premature publicity about the vouchers could "raise a volatile issue prior to the election and . . . allow hostile congressmen specific targets to attack the administration."
Devine argued at yesterday's hearing that, while OPM favors the voucher approach, a cabinet committee that must yet approve it still has "serious reservations" about how it would work, and what it would cost, and has not cleared it.
After the hearing, OPM officials said it would be 1984 at the earliest before the voucher plan went into effect, assuming it is proposed and passed.
Federal workers and retirees will have an open enrollment period this November to pick 1983 health plans, but the voucher system, OPM officials say, will not be part of it.
Because of a complicated system used to set the government contribution to health plans -- and the variety of prices among the 126 plans available -- Uncle Sam pays less than half the premium for some workers and 75 percent for others. Backers of the voucher system argue that it would provide the same basic contribution for everyone and encourage greater competition among insurance carriers competing for voucher dollars.