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Opinion Feds, retirees get soaked in ‘perfect storm’ of rising insurance costs

(Nigel Carse/iStock)
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Federal employees and retirees can be excused for feeling as though they’re getting soaked by what has been described as a “perfect storm” hitting their health benefits.

This storm has been brewing for months, but its effects are especially noticeable now that the month-long “open season” to change selections for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) will end soon.

Members have until Dec. 12 to change their health insurance selections for 2017. Many can save money by doing a little homework, but many don’t bother. With health costs going up more than pay and annuities, there is good reason to study the options available during open season.

The first thing they will notice is the 6.2 percent average increase in health insurance premiums. Although that’s in line with employer-sponsored health plans generally, it’s significantly more than the increase in pay and retirement benefits.

The average pay increase for federal workers next year will be 1.6 percent. Washington-Baltimore area staffers will see a 2.02 percent increase because of locality pay. Meanwhile, annuities will increase barely, just 0.3 percent.

It’s so small that “don’t blink or you’ll miss it,” David Snell, a National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) benefits expert, told a recent FEHBP forum.

In addition, Medicare premiums for many are increasing significantly.

In a Nov. 30 letter to members of Congress, the Federal-Postal Coalition of almost two dozen federal employee organizations complained “that Medicare Part B premiums will rise by an average of $4 per month for most beneficiaries, but will rise by more than $12 per month for 30 percent of beneficiaries. This 10 percent increase comes on top of a 15 percent increase in 2016, when most beneficiaries saw no increase in their Part B premiums.”

Federal long-term care insurance has the largest increase, by far. The average price increase for that is 83 percent, the maximum 126 percent.

On top of everything, Donald Trump’s presidential victory means that Republicans, who proposed making feds pay more out of pocket toward their retirement, will soon control the White House and Congress.

Effectively, the GOP plan could amount to a 5 percent pay cut, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) warned at the FEHBP forum he hosted at the Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton, Md.

When the FEHBP increases were announced in September, NARFE President Richard G. Thissen said that “this perfect storm of rising health insurance costs will not only decrease federal retirees’ purchasing power, it will impact their quality of life.”

He complained that “in the past six years, pay raises for federal employees” have fallen far behind the increase in FEHBP premiums over the same period.

So, what can folks do?

People potentially can give themselves a pay raise, but “they don’t do it for whatever reasons” by studying health insurance options and selecting a better value, said Walton Francis, principal author of “Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees,” published by Consumers’ Checkbook.

Checkbook’s Guide and materials published by the Office of Personnel Management provide information to help customers select the best plan for their situations.

At Van Hollen’s annual health insurance fairs, experts are questioned about the large selection of health plans available to federal employees and retirees.

They have a “feeling there might be something better out there, but they don’t know how to find it,” Francis said. Some may feel “lost and confused,” not because of any shortcoming on their part, he added, but because insurance is “a hard subject.”

Ed DeHarde, the OPM’s deputy assistant director of Federal Employee Insurance Operations, agreed, saying that “this is a complex decision and is different for every individual.”

Among the items enrollees should consider is the self-plus-one option instead of family plans.

“Not all enrollees who could have benefited from this option switched,” DeHarde said. The OPM estimates that several hundred thousand more could save money by doing so.

He also urged members to consult medicine price calculators offered by insurance companies “to better manage their prescription drug costs.” A new FEHBP benefit covers treatment for children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

DeHarde suggested that FEHBP annuitants with Medicare review “how the plans they are considering coordinate with Medicare. Annuitants that are newly eligible for Medicare should strongly consider enrolling in Medicare Part B when first eligible.”

Yet even with careful consideration, enrollees are still left with insurance prices rising faster than incomes.

“This is an unacceptably high increase,” American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. said when the FEHBP increase was announced.

The government’s costs also are increasing, but at a lower, formula-driven rate.

“This continuation of health-care cost-shifting onto federal workers and retirees,” Cox added, “is making coverage less and less affordable.”

Read more:

[Feds pay steep price for long-term care company errors]

[Federal employee health premiums to rise 6.2 percent on average]

[Federal raise in Washington-Baltimore area set at 2.02 percent]

[Federal employees one step closer to 1.6 percent raise]

[Federal retirees to get small sip of COLA]