- The Washington Times - Monday, January 1, 2007

Several years ago at a health insurance seminar in New York City, a 91-year-old federal government retiree walked up to the Blue Cross Blue Shield representative, who was struck by two things: how alert the retiree was and that he had only one tooth.

After showing him the health care program’s brochure for that year, the representative asked him what he considered to be the most important feature in a plan. “Dental benefits,” he replied.

Did I mention he had only one tooth?

The Blue Cross representative said she didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or wind her watch. She did nothing because, she said, it was clear he wasn’t kidding. And it turns out he was probably right.

Active and retired federal and postal workers’ No. 1 complaint about the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) is that it has poor dental benefits.

FEHBP is considered the best insurance deal in the U.S., providing cradle-to-grave coverage, with the government paying an average 72 percent of the total premium. But many feds fault its dental features. The best are found in its health maintenance organizations, and they — like most private-sector health plans — don’t pay enough of the total bills.

So it’s no surprise to learn that nearly 700,000 active and retired feds signed up for the optional dental/vision packages offered during the open season last month. Under the deal, workers and former feds and spouses could pick a dental package offered by Aetna, Government Employees Hospital Association, MetLife, United Concordia, Group Health, CompBenefits and Triple-S. Although Blue Cross didn’t offer a dental option plan, it did offer vision benefits along with Spectera and Vision Service Plan.

Under the optional plan, workers and retirees pay the entire premium, but many people decided it was a good deal, especially when combined with a flexible spending account or a health savings account. With the flexible accounts, people can pay for uncovered services, such as dental coverage, with pre-tax dollars.

The optional dental/vision plans, approved by Congress, are effective this year. People who were interested had to sign up by the end of 2006 under an extended open-enrollment period. Congress specified that workers and retirees had to pay the full premium for the optional coverage, but that was then (2006) and this is now, 2007.

Look for half a dozen House members to offer legislation that would require the government to kick in something — maybe one-third, maybe one-half — toward the optional dental/vision plans. Although it’s a long shot, it could become a reality in four or five years.

Pay raise

The pay raise for federal workers and the cost of living adjustment (COLA) for federal retirees and survivors are both official.

In the Washington area, the raise will be 2.64 percent. Nationwide, the COLA for retirees under the old Civil Service Retirement System will be 3.3 percent. For those under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), it will be 2.3 percent.

But the pay story may not be over. Reps. Albert R. Wynn, Maryland Democrat, and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, have said they will push for an additional 2007 pay raise for white-collar feds. The amount could be 0.5 percent or even higher. They’ve got a strong and powerful ally in incoming House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

Although it will be an uphill fight for a relatively small amount, every little bit helps boost the lifetime annuity of workers when they retire, the value of their life insurance, and the amount they can contribute to their Thrift Savings Plan.

If approved — and that’s a big if — any raise would be retroactive to the first pay period beginning on or after Jan. 1.

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

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