Open season for the nation’s largest, employer-sponsored health insurance program closes soon.
The period when federal employees can select an insurance plan from the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program began Nov. 13 and generally will end at midnight Monday. Just so there’s no confusion: That’s Monday at 11:59:59 p.m.
But Uncle Sam resists simple, so here’s information that could confuse things. The Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program (FEDVIP) website, BENEFEDS.com, and the Federal Flexible Spending Account Program website, FSAFEDS.com, will stop accepting open-season enrollments at midnight Eastern time. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) says “midnight” for FEHB will be determined by the electronic enrollment system utilized by various agencies. More information is available on its website.
Make selections sooner rather than later to avoid any uncertainty.
To help those who still haven’t made a selection, and possibly get a better deal, we contacted three FEHB experts. Below are answers to a few questions I asked Walt Francis, an independent health economist and chief author of Checkbook’s annual Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees & Annuitants; James Marshall, deputy director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) Federal Benefits Institute; and Laurie Bodenheimer, OPM’s deputy director of health care and insurance.
What issues are federal employees most concerned about this open season?
Francis: They are mostly not concerned about health insurance issues at all, which is a terrible mistake. In the D.C. area, there are 11 plans in which likely costs to an employee family of three, including premium and out of pocket, are $4,500 or less. There are 11 plans where those likely costs are $6,000 or more. Many, and probably most, of the hundreds of thousands of employees who are not considering a change are probably tossing away thousands of dollars by not considering their options.
Marshall: Federal employees who are planning to retire on Dec. 31 needed assistance with understanding how to make an open-season election with their retirement application package. The open-season election should be included with their retirement application package and forwarded to OPM for processing during the adjudication of their retirement, not to their agency. If you’re retiring on Dec. 31 and you are making an open-season election through your agency, that’s a mistake.
Bodenheimer: For the FEHB program, they are concerned about their plan’s premium for 2018, any changes in their plan’s benefits for 2018 and if their doctors will continue to be in the plan’s network. All of these questions can be answered by reviewing the information available on OPM’s website. We also see more enrollees concerned about the quality of the health care they receive from their FEHB plan. For enrollees to see how well a plan delivers its services and works to improve health care, OPM has built a Compare Quality page. Here a person can enter their Zip code and see how the plans in their area perform on key measures of population health and customer satisfaction.
What are the main things that should concern federal employees this open season?
Francis: The main things that should concern them are the things they don’t know because they are unwilling to spend an hour online — that is all it has to take — to find out the simplest and most important things. How many know they can save thousands?
How many employees understand that high-deductible plans are like IRAs on steroids — the money goes in tax free, additional contributions go in tax free, the money grows tax free, and if spent on health care, the money comes out tax free.
How many annuitants know that Blue Cross Basic now has a $600 rebate to offset the cost of Medicare Part B, that Aetna Direct gives an even more generous $900 health-care account, and that both provide complete hospital and doctor wraparound benefits, with no deductible or co-pays?
Marshall: Depending upon your needs, which can change from time to time, it’s always good to take a closer look at what you’re paying for to see if it’s going to be the best value for you next year.
What advice do you have for those who have not yet made a selection and now have little time to do so?
Francis: Any employee can sit down for an hour at their desktop computer and get to either OPM’s or Checkbook’s plan comparison websites to download a few plan brochures to explore using PDF search and navigation tools, to make side-by-side comparisons of three or four plans simultaneously, and in Checkbook’s case to see estimates of likely costs in each plan as well as whether their doctors are in the plan’s network. For the great majority, one hour is all it takes to reach an easy and sensible decision on a good plan for the coming year.
Marshall: Use the resources available to you online or the one-stop NARFE launching pad for all things related to open season. Here you will find important web links to various resources all in one spot.
As an annuitant, if you want to make a change this open season and you are unable to access the online tools or services, or if you are unable to reach someone at 1-800-332-9798 (OPM’s dedicated toll free open season express phone line), then simply send your request to OPM via certified mail, postmarked no later than Monday, Dec. 11, using the following address: OPM Open Season Processing Center P.O. Box 5000 Lawrence, KS 66046-0500.
Bodenheimer: Don’t wait until it’s too late.