When you talk about mental health problems and costs, as Surgeon General David Satcher did Monday, people listen.

He said 50 million Americans suffer from some form of mental illness. And nobody, except his boss, President Clinton, is doing much to help. This summer, you may recall, the president said he had ordered all federal health plans to offer the same coverage for mental disorders as for other types of illness. He just didn't say when.

The federal health plan is the nation's largest. It covers 9 million people, including most elected and appointed politicians and their families, as well as current and retired government workers and their families. Many consider it the best staff health plan in the nation.

The government--that is, the taxpayers--pays an average of 72 percent of each premium for each covered employee or retiree.

Many federal workers assumed that the improved coverage would take place like, well, right away. At least for the new insurance year that begins Jan. 1. Not so.

The president's directive came too late for negotiations for 2000 health plans. In fact, the changes won't take place until January 2001. That's not an inexcusable time lag. The devil is, after all, in the details.

But maybe it's a lesson in promises from politicians. Next time one promises you a gift--using your money--ask him one simple question before you start cheering: When can I expect delivery?

Labor Relations Session The Federal Labor Relations Authority and the Office of Special Counsel are sponsoring a joint town hall meeting at 9 a.m. tomorrow in the Labor Department's auditorium, 200 Constitution Ave. NW. The session is aimed at giving labor relations professionals updates on various policy and guidance changes. It is also a chance for them to meet the working staff of Joseph Swerdzewski, FLRA general counsel, and Elaine Kaplan, OSC special counsel. FLRA is an independent agency that runs the federal labor relations program, while OSC is its investigative and prosecuting component, which also processes unfair labor practice charges. For details on the meeting, call Verneal Blackiston at 202-482-6702, Ext. 11.

Union's Win Headquarters staffers at the Federal Aviation Administration have picked the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees as their bargaining agent. The employees work in the Office of Regulation and Certification, Office of Airports, Office of System Safety and Office of Civil Rights. The vote for the unit of 510 employees was 339 for AFSCME, 49 against and 31 challenged ballots. AFSCME Local 26 has been aggressively picking up members from a half-dozen federal agencies in the Washington area.

Transit Subsidies The number of federal workers getting transit subsidies has doubled in the past two years. The General Accounting Office says that during the past two fiscal years, a million workers in 47 agencies took part in the program designed to discourage them from driving to work. The National Treasury Employees Union has been particularly successful in negotiating transit subsidy programs in agencies where it represents workers. NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley says the program, which runs about $45 million a year, benefits the public by improving the morale and productivity of employees, while cutting down on traffic and pollution.

One theory is that many Internal Revenue Service workers belong to the union and that anything anybody can do to make IRS people happier is a win-win situation.

Investment Guide FEDweek, the Internet newsletter, has come up with a new "Thrift Savings Plan Investor's Handbook" for federal workers and retirees with money in the stock, bond and Treasury funds of the federal 401(k) plan. The open season--when people can sign up for the savings plan or reallocate future payroll contributions--ends Jan. 31.

Its editors say the guidebook "is not a primer on the TSP, but a full-blown investor's guide telling what to do with their funds once they've begun to build their accounts." The book is $12.95 (that includes postage) at 1-888-333-9335.

OPM's Okay! The Office of Personnel Management's retirement and insurance operation is doing a dynamite job, according to a customer satisfaction service survey released yesterday.

The heavily downsized OPM says that the results of the American Customer Satisfaction Index gave the agency's retirement and insurance operation a rating of 75. That's several points above similar operations in other public and private operations.

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

Wednesday, Dec. 15, 1999