Although the final tally will not be known until spring, a preliminary count shows that more than 215,000 government employees, retirees and their family members have qualified for federal long-term care insurance.

The new benefit program, launched last year, also will collect more than $250 million in premiums annually, according to projections by Long Term Care Partners Inc., the company that provides coverage to government workers and retirees under a contract with the Office of Personnel Management.

When the last of the applications for coverage has been processed, the federal program will emerge as the nation's largest employer-sponsored long-term care insurance program, the company said. (The largest program, with 171,000 enrollees, has been operated by the California state employee retirement system.)

The preliminary results were announced by the company this week at the 16th Private Long Term Care Insurance Conference, held in San Antonio.

"I believe that the federal program will become the new standard for consumer excellence in the industry and the benchmark against which all future long-term care insurance coverage will be measured," said Paul Forte, chief executive officer of Long Term Care Partners.

Frank Titus, assistant director for long-term care insurance at OPM, said last year's "open season" provided enrollment information to 8 million people through meetings, mailings and Internet sites. More than a million people requested an application kit; of those, more than 25 percent applied for coverage, Titus said.

Long Term Care Partners said enrollees are 54 percent female and 46 percent male. The average ages of enrollees were 51 for active-duty civilians, 45 for military personnel, 65 for civil service and postal retirees, and 63 for military retirees.

Nearly 70 percent of enrollees selected one of the program's pre-packaged plans. The most popular choice, the company said, was the Comprehensive 100 Plan, offering a $100 daily benefit, a three-year benefit period and automatic inflation protection.

The premium for the Comprehensive 100 Plan comes to $775 annually for a civil service employee who is 51 and $1,420 for a retiree who is 65.

Government employees and retirees may still apply for coverage, although some steps in the application process have changed since the open season.

Long Term Care Partners, based in Portsmouth, N.H., is a joint partnership of John Hancock Life Insurance Co. and Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

Overhaul Plan at Defense The Defense Department is developing a legislative blueprint aimed at overhauling its civil service pay and personnel systems.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in describing the proposal to the House Armed Services Committee last week, said the Pentagon may want to create a "National Security Personnel System" that would provide the department "greater flexibility in how it handles and manages its civilian personnel -- so we can attract and retain and improve the performance of our 700,000-plus civilian workforce."

Rumsfeld said civil service rules get in the way of Pentagon efforts to manage its people. "The unintentional effect has been that the department uses military personnel and contractors rather than civilians, since they can be more easily managed," he said.

A defense official said the Pentagon will ask Congress to extend management flexibilities covering about 30,000 employees in acquisition offices and research and science laboratories to the rest of the department's civil service workforce.

"We have three main goals: more flexibility in hiring, pay banding and enhancing our relationship with the unions at the national level. The proposal would do so in a way that retains core civil service values, accommodates veterans' preference and respects labor bargaining," the official said.

The Pentagon declined to provide details because "the proposal has not been approved by the administration."

In creating the Department of Homeland Security last year, Congress gave Secretary Tom Ridge the leeway to overhaul pay and personnel systems after a one-year transition. Some Defense Department officials believe they should have similar authority to revamp civil service procedures.

"We really need a civilian personnel system to shake up where we are these days," a senior defense official recently told reporters.

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