As open season for the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program draws to a close, many federal employees and annuitants are still trying to get through jammed phone lines with their questions.

Open season, the five-week period when they can change health insurance plans, ends Dec. 14. This season, much more than most, comes with a lot of questions because of a new offering – the self-plus-one option. It allows a federal staffer or retiree to purchase coverage for two, instead coverage for a larger family, which is generally, though not always, more costly.

A new option, however, means new questions, so many questions that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is having trouble answering them. But some relief is coming.

“The 2015 Open Season is the busiest on record” for the program that provides health insurance for 8.2 million federal workers, retirees and family members, said John O’Brien, OPM’s director of health care and insurance.

When Paul Michel, an 81-year-old Bureau of Engraving and Printing retiree in New Market, Md., had self-plus-one questions he called OPM. “I held on the line for two hours,” he complained. “No one picked up the line. It kept ringing and ringing and ringing.”

Ed Milligan, “originally a Philly guy” now living in Silver Spring, has a similar complaint: “Every time I call there is a recording that comes up stating there is an overload and there will be a 50-minute delay. If I wait a while, another message comes up stating ‘call back later.’”  The 86-year-old Defense Department retiree suggested an open season extension, “because I think we’re going to need one.”

There will be no extension, but OPM will allow some changes after open season ends. There will be limited enrollment period for active employees during all of February.

“Because of the interest in Self Plus One, OPM will open a Limited Enrollment Period in the month of February (2016),” O’Brien said by email. “This will allow active federal employee enrollees who are currently enrolled in Self and Family and would have been better served switching to Self Plus One more time to make the change.”

This limited enrollment period “does not apply to annuitants,” he said, “because they are allowed to decrease enrollment at any time. This means that if you have a Self and Family enrollment and you decide you would like to change to a Self Plus One enrollment, you may do so throughout the year.”

He cautioned that the limited period will allow changes only within a previously selected insurance plan and is not an extension of open season, which allows all FEHB participants to change plans.

“The limited enrollment period is not an Open Season,” O’Brien said. “Individuals will only be able to change from Self and Family coverage to Self Plus One coverage in their current plan. They will not be able to make any other enrollment changes.”

The new self plus one coverage has propelled a surge in FEHB changes this year. The 372,206  changes during the first three weeks of this year’s open season is 80 percent more than the same period last year and more than double the number in 2013.

Acknowledging the “really long wait times” frustrating some callers, O’Brien urged them to use the FEHB website or to contact their individual insurance companies.

We also asked outside authorities about questions they get during open season. Walt Francis and David Snell are two experts now fielding lots of FEHB questions from participants like those at a forum they attended sponsored by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in Wheaton last week.  Francis is chief author of Checkbook’s annual Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees & Annuitants, and Snell is director of federal benefits services for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.

One question Francis gets comes from spouses, both of whom are feds: “Should we enroll in self plus one, or sign up for two self only enrollments?”

“Two self only enrollments will always cost less in premiums than one self plus one enrollment in the same plan. And you get the flexibility to choose two different plans if your needs are different,” Francis said. “But watch out for exposing yourself to much higher expenses if you are considering a plan where the maximum out of pocket you each might have to pay would be more than the maximum in a self plus one enrollment.”

Snell said some NARFE members want to know whether they will lose any benefits if they change from self-and-family coverage to self-plus-one coverage.

“No, you will continue to have the same benefit coverage as you currently have,” Snell said by email. “FEHBP plans have different out of pocket costs such as of co-pays and co-insurance depending on the option (High, Standard, Basic, etc) but not under the type of enrollment coverage  (Self, Self Plus One or Self and Family).”

Snell and Francis agree there are no bad plans in FEHB, but studying the wealth of information available and making wise choices during open season is the way to save money.

More information about FEHB’s open season and the health plans available are at these links: www.opm.gov/healthcare-insurance/open-season, retireefehb.opm.gov and www.guidetohealthplans.org.

There are more questions and answers from Francis and Snell at the Federal Eye at www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye.