The Washington Post

Questions, doubts about plan to allow all in federal employees health insurance program

Columnist

Open Season, that four-week period when choices can be made in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), begins Monday. More than eight million workers, retirees and their families will be able to choose health insurance through a program that is a good, solid fringe benefit for government workers.

So good, that a key House committee chairman doesn’t want feds to keep the program to themselves.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, thinks FEHBP should be open to all Americans — all 317 million of them. He has introduced legislation to do just that.

“The Equal Healthcare Access Act offers Americans access to the same health insurance plans long enjoyed by Members of Congress and their families,” he said. “This is a free market approach to healthcare with government playing the very limited role of helping small businesses and individuals come together to get a better price for healthcare — much like larger businesses can already negotiate on their own.”

It’s not a new idea.

“In one form or another it’s been around for 20 or 30 years,” said Walt Francis, a health economist and chief author of Checkbook’s annual “Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees.”

Issa is a fierce critic of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, calling it “this train wreck of a law.” So it is easy to imagine that his legislation is designed as another jab at a measure Republicans desperately and relentlessly have tried to kill. Yet, it must be noted that among the seven co-sponsors, there is a lone Democrat, Rep. William Clay (Mo.). He did not respond to a request for comment.

Party politics aside, would increasing FEHBP almost 40 fold, in terms of population served, be a good thing?

It certainly “would be very complicated to administer,” Francis predicted.

Employee union leaders don’t like Issa’s plan. The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, whose members need a lot of health care, hasn’t taken a position “due to the lack of concrete information,” said Jessica Klement, the organization’s legislative director.

More than one union leader suggested Issa look to Obamacare.

“If Chairman Issa is so concerned with providing good insurance options to all Americans then he should be supporting the Affordable Care Act,” said Matthew Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers. Issa’s proposal “would be the equivalent of requiring a private sector employer to open up their employee health insurance plan to everyone, which is nonsensical.”

While saying he did not want to pass judgment on the bill, Francis raised serious questions that led him to conclude: “I think Issa did this to make a political point. I don’t think it’s to be taken seriously as an actual policy proposal.”

Among the questions:

●How would premiums be collected? If paid to Uncle Sam, what additional bureaucracy would be needed?

The legislation doesn’t say and Issa’s office is vague.

“OPM would work with non-federal enrollees on collection,” said Ali Ahmad, Issa’s senior communications adviser.

●The government pays up to 75 percent of the cost of insurance for its workers and annuitants. Would Sam do that for everybody? No one expects that.

“The legislation creates no new subsidies,” Ahmad said. “Non-federal employers can elect to provide premium support for their employees enrolled [in] FEHBP as a benefit. Other subsidies and tax credits offered under current law would be available to non-federal enrollees.”

●Would everyone be in the same risk pool or would feds and non-feds be segregated for purposes of determining premiums? There would be no separate risk pools, according to Ahmad.

That means premiums likely would jump for federal employees, according to Francis. “The effects on the federal enrollees could be huge,” he said.

You don’t have to be a health economist to know that federal workers don’t want their premiums going up to allow others in their program.

“Federal employees should not be in the position of subsidizing non-employee health care costs,” said National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley.

Adds Biggs: “This bill is nothing more than a gimmick.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
Republicans debate tonight. The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
The Fix asks The State's political reporter where the most important region of the state is.
He says he could talk about Charleston, which represents a little bit of everything in the state has to offer from evangelicals to libertarians, and where Ted Cruz is raising more money than anywhere else. In a twist, Marco Rubio is drawing strong financial support from more socially conservative Upstate. That said, Donald Trump is bursting all the conventional wisdom in the state. So maybe the better answer to this question is, "Wherever Trump is."
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read

politics

federal_government

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.