The Nov. 10 Federal Diary incorrectly said that federal government retirees are eligible for flexible spending accounts under tax law. (Published 11/11/04)

Congress returns next week for a lame-duck session and, in its rush to wrap up spending bills and overhaul intelligence agencies, may squeeze in approval of legislation that would enhance dental and vision benefits for federal employees.

The House and Senate are working on similar bills and congressional aides hope to resolve differences soon and get clearances from the Republican leaders. The bills would authorize the Office of Personnel Management to develop a new benefit program, but at no cost to taxpayers. The House and Senate proposals would require enrollees to pick up all premium costs for the enhanced dental and vision coverage.

Even if Congress sends the president a dental-vision bill before year's end, the program would not begin operating until 2006. That means many federal employees, at least for the short term, will have to keep looking for the best deal they can find in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Although experts fault FEHBP for providing paltry dental and vision benefits, there appear to be more choices being made available during the current open season, which runs for the next five weeks.

Among national plans, "Checkbook's 2005 Guide" to FEHBP lists the high-option plans sponsored by the Mail Handlers and the National League of Postmasters (PBP Health Plan) and the consumer-driven option sponsored by the American Postal Worker Union as worthy choices for employees and retirees who view dental care as a chief concern.

The Checkbook guide, published by the nonprofit that sponsors Washington Consumers' Checkbook magazine (www.guidetohealthplans.org), also recommends health maintenance organizations for dental coverage. In the Washington area, Checkbook cites the Aetna consumer-driven option and M.D. IPA as HMOs offering competitive dental benefits.

Federal employees and retirees, without paying any extra premium, also can obtain dental coverage by signing up for plans that provide discounts from certain dentists. You can usually find them in plan brochures under non-FEHBP benefits, according to Checkbook.

If you are willing to pay an additional premium, some FEHBP plans are offering separate enrollments for dental and vision care.

For example, GEHA's Connection Dental Plus is available to all federal employees, not just GEHA enrollees. Starting next year, the Mail Handlers Benefit Plan will be opening its supplemental dental and vision plans to all federal employees. Other plans, such as Kaiser Permanente, offer special dental packages to members by contracting with providers, such as Delta Dental.

Washington area employees and retirees also may want to check out the new vision benefit at M.D. IPA. The HMO has partnered with Spectera, a company that specializes in providing vision benefits. For no additional premium, M.D. IPA enrollees who stay in network are covered for frames and lenses once every 24 months after making a $25 copayment for their eye exam. The benefit provides $125, once every 24 months, for contact lenses. It also offers access to discounted prices for laser eye surgery.

Employees and retirees who cannot find a health plan that also provides them with the level of dental and vision care they need should consider signing up for a "flexible spending account" during the open season. FSAs allow active-duty employees to use up to $4,000 in pretax dollars to cover out-of-pocket health costs.

FEHBP Forum

Rep. Chris Van. Hollen (D-Md.) will host forums on health benefits for federal employees on Monday in Silver Spring and Nov. 17 in Rockville. Representatives of health insurance companies will attend and answer questions about the 2005 Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

The Monday session will be at 10 a.m. at the Gwendolyn Coffield Community Center. The Nov. 17 session will be held at The Universities at Shady Grove.

For additional information, call 301-424-3501.

Diary Live Today

Stephen W. Gammarino, senior vice president for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association's federal employee program, will take questions on the 2005 FEHBP open season at noon today on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com