The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats hit feds’ long-term care issues and Trump’s planned retirement cuts


In November, fuming members of Congress demanded to know how the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) would stabilize a long-term care program that shocked participants with price hikes of as much as 126 percent.

Seven months later, they are still waiting for answers – but not patiently.

It was at a House government operations subcommittee hearing a few days after Thanksgiving when Virginia Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, the top Democrat on the panel, pressed an agency leader on plans to prevent another debacle in the insurance program.

The insurance for purchase by federal employees and retirees is provided by the John Hancock Life and Health Insurance Co., with questionable OPM oversight.

“We do not have a proposal that is ready for being shared with the committee at this time,” John O’Brien, then OPM’s director of health care and insurance under the Obama administration, told the hearing. “The options and the discussion that has been offered around here goes in a number of different directions. We would like to evaluate those possibilities and come to this committee and this group with a proposal that we could really play out and we’ve weighed all the pros and cons, and we have not yet done that.”

Connolly: “Any idea of the timeline when you will do that?”

O’Brien: “We are continuing to work. I cannot give you a timeline at this time, sir.”

Added Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.): “We really need a commitment from you to have to do things differently.”

Two hundred and five days later, they still seek that commitment.

In a letter sent Thursday, Beyer and Connolly again asked OPM when it will have a plan to protect long-term care enrollees from sudden and dramatic premium increases.

Complaining that O’Brien’s answers “were not sufficient,” the congressmen said “in order to avoid premium price shock each time there is a new FLTCIP (Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program) contract, we must have an understanding of how OPM plans to address these urgent matters going forward.”

Urgent is not the way to characterize OPM’s response to questions about long-term care.

An agency spokesperson declined to say what, if anything, has been done to stabilize the program since the November hearing. Even basic questions related to the number of people in the program were deferred. There were about 274,000 last year.

“OPM has received the letter, and we are reviewing it,” an agency statement said. “OPM does not have anything additional to add at this time.”

The lack of agency accountability adds fuel to the ire.

“The utter fecklessness of that office and having no answers, no recommendations, no reforms, no proposals is astounding,” said Connolly in an interview, “and a terrible disservice to the federal employees and retirees who counted on this service.”

The indignation of the congressmen is outpaced by the anger of the program’s participants.

Said Kathy Olenik, a Dunkirk, Md., Interior Department retiree: “I have not heard a word from OPM on these outrageous rates I am required to pay to keep my long-term care insurance. I really question if they have the ability to do anything, seems like the insurance company has a hold over OPM.”

Jerome Duncan, a District resident and Department of Veterans Affairs annuitant, said: “I am VERY [original emphasis] disappointed in the performance of OPM regarding the long-term care (LTC) program.  They have tolerated the outright theft of a lot of money from some current and many former federal employees … OPM and the Federal Government owes us a better effort and product.”

Neil Ray, a Fish and Wildlife Service retiree in Silver Spring, had this to say: “Like many others, my wife and I were outraged at the OPM options offered a year or so ago.  After faithfully paying our premiums for many years, we felt scammed by the sudden price jumps to the program.”

Said Beyer: “We just don’t want a recurrence of the disaster that happened last time.”

Beyer, along with more than 100 House Democrats, led by Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) and Connolly, also signed a letter opposing President Trump’s planned cuts to federal retirement programs. They sent it last week to Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the House Democratic leader.

“Specifically, the President has proposed increasing the amount federal employees pay toward their retirement fund, which is tantamount to a pay cut,” they wrote.

In a statement to The Washington Post, the Office of Management and Budget noted the 1.9 percent pay raise and the six weeks of paid parental leave available to feds and others in Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget plan and said it “will help bring Federal retirement benefits more in line with the private sector while reducing long term costs.”

That’s not good enough for the Democrats or federal employees.

“We will oppose any effort to balance the budget on the backs of public servants,” the House members’ letter said, “and we urge you to stop legislation from being brought to the House floor that would undermine and demoralize our federal workforce.”

Read more:

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

[Costs skyrocket for feds’ long-term-care insurance]

[Most long-term insurance care enrollees are eligible for little-known benefit]

[Despite ‘outrage,’ OPM won’t delay big price increase for long-term care]