It's time for a toothy smile. Congress appears ready to create a voluntary program for federal employees and retirees who want to purchase dental and vision insurance.

For years, federal employees have responded in surveys that they want better dental and vision benefits than those offered through their health insurance program. But policymakers balked at playing tooth fairy, worried that providing such benefits could be expensive and add to premium costs that are mostly borne by taxpayers.

Now, it appears likely that for many employees and retirees, the long policy toothache is over.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, and Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), a committee member, introduced legislation last week that would provide enhanced dental and vision benefits to employees and retirees at affordable group rates, obtained through the leverage of the government's purchasing power.

In exchange, enrollees would shoulder all the premium costs, according to the bill.

Collins introduced the bill late Wednesday, after several weeks of private talks with unions and employee groups. Major unions said they would support the legislation, even though they would have preferred that the government, as employer, pick up most of the premium cost, as it does for medical insurance in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

On Friday, Rep. Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.), joined by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), introduced an identical bill in the House. Their quick action might give the Collins-Akaka bill a chance at congressional passage before year's end.

The senators patterned their proposal after the federal program that provides long-term care insurance to government employees and retirees, who bear the full cost of that benefit.

The bill includes a nonbinding provision that calls on Congress, after implementation, to consider picking up a share of dental-vision premiums.

"Skyrocketing federal deficits, coupled with a political environment that lacks the will to fund such an endeavor" left Collins and Akaka to propose "the next best thing" to a subsidized premium, said Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

"Clearly something had to be done with regard to the huge expense being incurred by our nation's civil servants for dental and vision services," Junemann said.

By most accounts, the government provides meager dental and vision coverage to employees, compared with private sector benefits.

CompBenefits Corp., an administrator of health and vision benefits, evaluated 150 FEHBP medical plans for testimony before the House civil service subcommittee in February. Of the 150 plans, only one provided preventive dental care for children, and only 14 offered orthodontic coverage, CompBenefits found. In general, reimbursement levels and annual maximum benefits were significantly less than those provided by private-sector employers.

Forty-eight state governments provide employees with access to dental benefit plans, and surveys show that 95 percent of employers with 500 or more workers provide dental insurance, Collins said in a statement.

The legislation, she said, "grants the Office of Personnel Management the authority to select the appropriate combination of nationwide and regional companies and a variety of benefit packages to meet the diverse needs of our federal employee and annuitant population."

Under the bill, plans could provide a broad range of dental coverage, including oral and maxillofacial surgery, endodontics, periodontics, prosthodontics and orthodontics. Vision plans could cover preventive care and eyewear, for example.

Because employees may be enrolled in a flexible spending account, which helps cover out-of-pocket dental and vision costs, and because many employees and retirees have limited coverage through their medical plans, Collins said the bill would direct OPM to develop information "so that employees have a clear understanding of the choices available to them."

Collins and Jo Ann Davis said the legislation would make the government a more attractive employer. "It is no secret that the federal government has been lagging behind the private sector," Jo Ann Davis said. "Federal employees understand this disparity and so do the talented potential employees out there who the government wants to recruit."