The decision came after the office had warned workers early Wednesday that they would have to pay their premiums beginning this week or they could lose their coverage.
It is unclear when the office changed the policy, or how the change was accomplished.
The workers are not at risk of losing their health insurance benefits, which will stay in effect through the duration of the shutdown — and for as long as a year — even if they are not receiving a paycheck, with their accumulated premiums deducted from their pay once their agency reopens.
However, that protection does not extend to vision and dental insurance, and starting with their third missed paycheck, employees will be billed directly for premiums for dental and vision coverage. The company that provides long-term care insurance to federal workers also will start billing them directly.
The shift in benefits, included in a memo by the Office of Personnel Management, will be another financial hit to employees, many of whom already are struggling with severe cash flow problems as the shutdown slogs past the one-month mark.
It’s another consequence of the lapse in appropriations for nine large agencies and dozens of small ones. Because federal agencies are not disbursing money to employees while they’re closed, the government is not deducting premiums to pay insurance carriers.
The Federal Dental and Vision Insurance Program is voluntary for federal employees, who may enroll in one type of coverage or both.
The premiums are much less expensive than what employees pay for the federal employee health-care program. The vision plan can cost as little as $3.09 every two weeks for an individual and as much as about $20 every two weeks for a family. The dental plan is pricier, with a family plan costing as much as $76.80 every two weeks.
But it still represents a hardship, employee organizations say. And employees who let their dental or vision premiums lapse may not be able to sign up again until the next enrollment period, which starts each year in mid-November.
“If you’re about to miss your second paycheck and you’re about to get a bill for benefits, that’s the difference between paying for a grocery run and having dental insurance,” said Jessica Klement, vice president for advocacy for the National Association of Active and Retired Federal Employees, an organization whose 200,000 members include about 40,000 federal workers. Her comments came before the extension.
In a Wednesday letter also prior to the extension, Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, and Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner of Virginia, all Democrats, demanded the personnel office work with insurers to “develop alternative payment arrangements.”
“If the status quo persists, you are undoubtedly risking the health and wellness of federal workers,” the senators wrote.
The Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program also will start directly billing employees after three missed paychecks. Insurance premiums for long-term care can vary substantially, depending on when someone enrolls and the level of coverage. For example, a 50-year-old who takes out a middle-of-the-road policy — three years of coverage at $200 a day with 4 percent inflation protection — would pay about $67 every two weeks.
Federal retirees are unaffected by the changes to the insurance program during the shutdown because their annuity benefits — paid around the first of each month — are drawn from a trust fund.
The Office of Personnel Management has told employees that their life insurance coverage will continue during the shutdown. However, because they are not receiving a paycheck, employees’ payroll deductions for pretax flexible-spending accounts have stopped. They remain enrolled in the program, but cannot be reimbursed for eligible health-care claims until their agency reopens.
The shutdown also is blocking employees from changing insurance companies or policies because of unforeseen circumstances, like marriage or divorce — changes called “qualifying events.” However, the Office of Personnel Management says an exception is for the birth or addition of a child. That would require an agency to have a human resources office up and running to process the paperwork.