Members of the Senior Executive Service and its equivalents in agencies such as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Defense Intelligence Agency are likely to get a 3.4 percent raise in January when their subordinates get a 4.8 percent increase.

According to the Senior Executives Association, the raises are possible because of the Treasury-Postal Service appropriations bill signed into law Sept. 29. The law raises the cap on SES base pay from $118,400 to $122,400 and increases the cap on total pay, including locality adjustments, from $125,900 to $130,200.

SEA, which represents about 6,000 federal executives, says this is only the second time in seven years the caps have been lifted.

Currently, pay for SES members in the Washington area ranges from $110,351 to $125,900. Because of freezes on executive-level salaries, all SES members in the top two levels are paid the same. Those in the third-highest level are paid only $400 a year less.

By declining to continue the freeze on executive-level pay, Congress set the stage for an automatic 3.4 percent raise--called a cost-of-living adjustment--for SES employees. The legislation also permits the salary for the next president to rise from $200,000 to $400,000.

Most SES members are in the Washington area, but the government has spread them throughout the nation. Vermont and North Dakota have one SES resident each. There are 3,500 SES members working in the District, 837 in Virginia and 811 in Maryland. West Virginia has 11, and Delaware has one.

A number of federal agencies--most associated with law enforcement or diplomacy--have their equivalents of the SES. They, too, are expected to get a January increase.

Pentagon agencies have the most SES personnel. There are 490 in the office of the secretary of defense, 240 working for the Army, 150 working for the Air Force and 320 working for the Navy.

The Treasury Department has about 520 SES members; Energy Department, 380; Justice Department, 350; Department of Veterans Affairs, 280; Interior Department, 230; Transportation Department, 200; Labor Department, 140; State Department, 130; Department of Housing and Urban Development, 100; and Education Department, 80. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has about 370 SES members, and the General Services Administration has about 100.

The raises for SES personnel won't be official until President Clinton issues an executive order, expected sometime in December.

Retiree Mail Prescriptions Friday's column--about fee-for-service plans requiring drugs-by-mail co-payments next year for Medicare-eligible retirees--generated lots of calls. Too many to answer. But all the callers asked the same questions. Is it true? (Answer: Yes.) And what about me?

Beginning in January, all but one fee-for-service plan (Postmasters) will require co-payments for prescription drugs by mail. That's new for Medicare-eligible retirees, but not for other retirees or active-duty workers. The co-payments will range from $5 to $20 for a 90-day supply of drugs, some of which would cost $500 or more without a prescription benefit.

(Co-payment practices will vary among health maintenance organizations, which have few retiree members.)

The fee-for-service plans requiring co-payments of Medicare-eligible retirees in January are: Blue Cross-Blue Shield, GEHA, Alliance, American Postal Workers Union and the National Association of Letter Carriers plans. The Postmasters plan, an excellent plan but with high premiums, won't begin requiring co-payments. The Mail Handlers plan, which has low premiums but a less-generous prescription drug benefit, will begin requiring co-payments on top of a large deductible.

Health plans that are adding co-payments convinced the government that in some cases they are now paying more for prescription drugs than for other medical costs.

Workers and retirees have an open season coming, from Nov. 8 through Dec. 13, when they can switch health plans for next year. Most workers and retirees in the Washington area can choose among seven fee-for-service plans and at least seven HMOs.

None of the plans can reject anyone--worker, retiree or survivor--who is eligible for the federal health insurance program because of age, preexisting medical conditions or any other reason.

But the change in the drug-by-mail program for Medicare-eligible retirees is another reason that retirees, who tend to stick with their health plans, need to study plan brochures this year to seek out the best deal.

It is also always a good idea to check with your doctor (or the benefits expert in your doctor's office) to see whether the health plans that you are considering work for the doctor, too. Most area doctors are familiar with the federal program. Those who aren't should be.

The National Association of Retired Federal Employees is preparing a health plan update, which will include details of the new drug co-payment rules, for its November issue.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causeym@washpost.com

Tuesday, Oct. 19, 1999