T wo open seasons start today -- for health insurance and flexible spending accounts. Your first stop is just a click or two away on your computer.
The Office of Personnel Management, which administers the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and FSAFEDS, will post 2005 enrollment information today on its Internet site, an OPM spokesman said.
At the OPM Web site (www.opm.gov/insure), take time to read through the annual FEHBP Guide, which allows for a quick comparison of plans, co-payments and quality ratings. OPM has set up special Web pages for retirees (www.opm.gov/retire/fehb) through which enrollment changes and insurance brochures can be requested. The Web site also provides a link for information on flexible spending accounts.
Employees at dozens of agencies will have access to Web-based systems that help them find the health insurance plans that best meet their needs.
Each agency's personnel office can provide information on how to access these systems.
Dozens of agencies, for example, are subscribing to the guide written by health care expert Walton Francis and the editors of Washington Consumers' Checkbook magazine.
Agencies that are purchasing Checkbook's 2005 Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees include the departments of Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, State, Education and Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency and Social Security Administration. Some divisions of the Department of Homeland Security also subscribe to Checkbook's online guide.
Other agencies have signed up with PlanSmartChoice, created by North Carolina-based Asparity Decisions Solutions. Agencies making this online tool available to employees include the departments of Labor, Transportation and Treasury and the General Services Administration.
Federal employees and retirees have until Dec. 13 to select health insurance coverage. Employees can sign up for FSAs through Dec. 13, too.
As in past years, Checkbook's guide shows how employees and retirees can hold down health insurance costs if they are flexible and think they can predict the types of medical services they will need in the coming year.
Health maintenance organizations and Blue Cross and Blue Shield's Basic Plan can save a family more than $1,000 a year, compared with the highest-priced national plans, according to Checkbook's guide.
In the Washington area, Checkbook calculates that the lowest-cost HMOs -- Kaiser Mid-Atlantic and M.D. IPA -- will save a family about $1,000 compared with FEHBP's most popular plan, the Blue Cross standard option.
FSAs also let active-duty employees use pretax dollars to cover many health care costs, including over-the-counter medications and many elder-care and child-care costs.
Checkbook, for example, notes that employees can cover significant dental expenses by setting aside as much as $4,000 in an FSA account. That money is not subject to federal and state income taxes or Social Security taxes.
For most, Checkbook says, "this has the effect of reducing the amount you actually pay by about one-third."
Employees also can set aside pretax payroll dollars -- up to $5,000 -- for dependent care.
Although health insurance coverage carries over from year to year if an enrollee does not elect to change, that is not the case with FSAs. The law requires employees to sign up for each calendar year, and unspent funds in accounts are forfeited at the end of the year.
To Get the Guide
If you do not work at an agency that provides free access to Checkbook's guide, you can purchase an online subscription at www.guidetohealthplans.org for $8.95 or call 1-800-213-7283 to purchase a print version for $10.45 (includes shipping). PlanSmartChoice is available only through agencies and does not sell individual subscriptions.
Blue Cross on Diary Live
In addition to the column, Federal Diary Live is focusing on the FEHBP open season this month.
Last week, Diary Live featured Walton Francis, an expert on the program. You can find the transcript of his discussion with readers by going to www.washingtonpost.com and entering "Federal Diary" in the search function.
This week's guest will be Stephen W. Gammarino, senior vice president for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association's federal employee program. He will take questions about the 2005 FEHBP open season at noon Wednesday on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.