The Office of Personnel Management has reassured its House oversight committee that a dental and vision benefits program being planned for federal employees will leverage the government's purchasing power to hold down premiums.

"Our intention is that the final outcome will be a program that represents choice as well as a cost-efficient and -effective approach capable of meeting the needs of prospective enrollees," Linda M. Springer, OPM's director, said in a letter this week to Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.), chairman of the House federal workforce subcommittee.

OPM has announced plans to provide better dental and vision benefits to federal employees in July 2006. The agency's staff is developing a structure for the program and will probably issue a request to vendors for their ideas and bids in the next few months.

Congress approved legislation authorizing additional dental and vision benefits for federal employees in 2004, in large part because the program will not rely on taxpayer dollars and will require enrollees to pay all premium costs.

Key members of the House Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also have urged OPM to cast a wide net when it solicits proposals from vendors in the belief that competition will foster affordable group rates.

In a letter last month to OPM, Porter and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the Government Reform Committee, said Congress believes the new program should be based on "a fair and open process, giving each enrollee a broad choice of benefits and plan types," including dental health maintenance organizations and preferred provider options.

Porter and Davis also encouraged OPM to include regional insurance plans in its contract competition as a way of expanding program choices for employees and retirees.

Springer, in her reply this week, said OPM plans to stress competition and choice as tenets of the new benefits program, much as it does in the federal employee health insurance program.

"The solicitation will be broad enough to accommodate a wide variety of product types, including national and regional vendors," Springer wrote. "We expect that the solicitation will lead to a healthy competition among potential providers."

Congressional hearings in 2004 portrayed the government as offering meager dental and vision coverage to government workers. Health care experts testified that, in general, reimbursement levels and annual maximum benefits were much less than those provided by private-sector employers.

According to congressional aides, the legislation permits OPM to offer a broad range of coverage, including oral and maxillofacial surgery and orthodontics. The vision program will permit coverage for preventive care and eyewear, for example.

Fast-Track Hiring

OPM has published a rule that should make it easier for non-defense agencies to hire for acquisition jobs that require expertise and are difficult to fill.

The rule, ordered by Congress last year, will allow non-defense agencies to use "direct hire" procedures that permit speedy job offers to procurement professionals. The rule comes as a number of agencies have been faulted for improper contract awards or face staffing shortages because of increased workloads and retirements.

The interim rule, which expires Sept. 30, 2007, should help agencies focus on what types of acquisition workers and expertise they will need over the next few years. The Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency, has faulted agencies for lacking good data on their workforces, including attrition and retirement rates.

The GAO has argued that most agencies need to hire procurement specialists who are adept at analyzing business problems and in developing business strategies because government purchasing requires increasingly sophisticated skills.

Congress has asked OPM to report in March 2007 on the use and effectiveness of direct-hire recruitment and whether the flexibility should be extended past September 2007.

OPM also permits agencies to bypass civil service hiring rules for certain other occupations, such as nurses, pharmacists and Iraq reconstruction jobs that require fluency in Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com