- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

If you are a federal worker, a postal employee or the survivor or ex-spouse of an active or retired civil servant, then you can blow as much as $1,000 next year by paying too much for your health insurance.

Or you can save a bundle by picking the best plan, at the best level of premiums, for yourself or your family.

It’s your call, and it’s a “problem” most people in the private sector would love to have.

Here’s the deal:

The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) annual open season begins next month and runs through early December. The “average” premium, based on a complex formula involving the largest plans in the program, is going up by a modest amount. It is the lowest average increase in years.

Some plans in the FEHBP will boost your premiums by at least 15 percent, and some of their benefits are no better than those in plans that are holding the line or increasing only a few dollars per pay period.

The question, which only you can answer, is which plan is best for you. Don’t be too confused, lazy or busy to pick and choose.

So what you can do — and there is plenty of time — is check out the brochures of several plans that you think you might like. Consider the pros and cons of health maintenance organizations (HMOs), which generally offer lower premiums in return for a managed-care approach that can limit your choice of doctors and hospitals.

There is also the fact that HMOs, which practice managed care, offer what passes for the best dental benefits in the FEHBP.

Another thing you can do is to check the ratings of the plans by an independent source, such as the Washington Consumers Checkbook Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees. It can help you consider how little or how much you will be using your insurance next year, and figure your total premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

Using that guide, we will help walk you through the maze of health care plans during the November-to-December open season.

Finally, if you like your doctor and dentist, and they like you, run your options by them. You may find that your doctor or dentist participates in an HMO, which could save you a lot of money, or that they prefer to deal with one of the other plans that you are considering.

Picking a health plan isn’t rocket science. You can do it. But to win, you have to play — in this case by doing a little homework and research.

Retirement plan change

Don’t panic.

In the final phase of Congress, anything goes. Congress could cut costs by making changes in your retirement plan, namely by switching to a less generous retirement benefits calculation. This is just an option, not a proposal or legislation

It could change the system that bases pensions on the highest three-year average salary to the highest five-year average. If that happened, what would it mean to you? According to a 1997 Government Accountability Office study, if the government did choose the highest five-year average salary route, most feds would have to work an additional five to nine months to get the same pension as under the highest three-year average salary system.

Again, don’t panic — but don’t fall asleep at the switch, either.

• Mike Causey, senior editor at Federal News Radio AM 1050, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or mcausey@federalnewsradio.com.

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