Audrey Johnson, left, listens along with others as open season for federal employees and retirees brought people together for a presentation at Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton, Md., Monday. (Gerald Martineau/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Open season for the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program has been deceptively dull.

With the average increase for health insurance programs at a modest 3.8 percent for 2012, complaints by workers also have been modest, even though their salaries are frozen through the end of next year. Perhaps they remember this year’s 7.3 percent hike.

“This is a quiet open season,” said Walton Francis, primary author of Checkbook’s “Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees.

But there is a murmur behind the quiet that almost certainly will grow stronger as the days grow shorter and colder. It’s the sound of worry, a fear that plans to solve the government’s financial troubles will include hits to employee benefits.

“I’m concerned that the rates may go up and the benefits may go down,” Michael Chernick, a retired National Institute of Standards and Technology employee said Monday after a FEHBP forum at the Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton.

The event, on the first day of the open season when federal workers and retirees can change health plans, was sponsored by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and the Maryland Federation of Chapters of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE). The enrollment period ends Dec. 12. Most of the questions understandably fell into the “what’s the best plan for me” category. A panel of experts, including Francis, offered general suggestions and guided the nearly 200 attendees to sources of additional information. People from health insurance companies, many with logo-laden swag, were available to answer questions about their products.

But they were not equipped to address concerns about how FEHBP might fare as Congress attempts to fashion a deficit/debt reduction program. Not even Congress knows at this point.

“Don’t do damage to this program,” said Gordon Brown, who worked on the program before he retired from the Office of Personnel Management. Brown now is president of NARFE’s Bethesda-Chevy Chase chapter. “We worked for this program. We earned it.”

As a member of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, called the “supercommittee,” Van Hollen is in as good a position to know what the future holds as anyone. But so far, it is not clear to him whether the panel even will meet its Thanksgiving deadline to find cuts or added revenue to reduce the debt by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

“I don’t think we should be messing around with federal employee health benefits,” Van Hollen said by telephone after the Wheaton event. “While there are obviously proposals to cut them, I think that would be a mistake.”

Van Hollen, who has thousands of federal employees and retirees in his suburban Washington district, repeated his view that it is not fair for the government to “single out federal employees disproportionately” when trying to save money.

At this point, he can’t say whether the supercommittee will get its job done. “The jury is still out on that,” he said. “Obviously, the clock is ticking. We’re working hard to reach an agreement, but I don’t know the end of the movie yet.”

OPM’s computer problems

The Office of Personnel Management has had some well-publicized computer problems, and a House Oversight and Government Reform panel wants to find out if they are hindering the agency’s mission.

“OPM’s track record calls into question its ability to resolve its hiring and retirement claims systems in order to meet its core mission,” Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), chairman of the federal workforce subcommittee, said in a statement prepared for a Tuesday hearing.

“Continued reliance on a paper-based retirement system and technical problems plaguing the recent launch of USAJobs 3.0 raise questions regarding OPM’s ability to utilize the information technology necessary to support individuals at the beginning and end of the job cycle.”

OPM Director John Berry will tell the panel that “the government’s Chief Information Officer, Steve VanRoekel, assembled an IT SWAT team from across the Federal government” to assist OPM in resolving issues with USAJobs.

Berry will get backup from the Pentagon. Testimony submitted by Pasquale “Pat” Tamburrino Jr., a deputy assistant secretary of defense, says OPM “confronted those [USAJobs] challenges head-on, dealt with them quickly and effectively” and “has taken a number of steps to address the current backlog” in retirement claims.

In testimony submitted to the subcommittee, OPM Inspector General Patrick E. McFarland said “a key cause of OPM’s challenges in this area can be traced to the lack of institutional knowledge within OPM” about “a process for building information systems in a very deliberate, structured, and methodical way.”

Berry, in a prepared statement, said that he was “deeply troubled by the timeliness of processing retirement claims.” Federal retirees “deserve solid, respectful treatment that is commensurate with their service,” he said. “Nothing less is acceptable to me.”

Unfortunately, something less has been the case.

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