- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 12, 2002

The federal health insurance hunting season started yesterday and runs through Dec. 11.
If you're an active fed, or retired or the survivor of a civil servant or were once married to one you have a stake in the open season. Whether you do something, or nothing, you will be picking that plan that covers you and yours in 2003. This is not a chore you want to dodge.
Premiums are going up an average of 11 percent, but some more than 40 percent. And benefits in some plans (spelled out in their brochures) are going down. You can sleepwalk during the open season, but in so doing you may wake up with a headache, and your pocket picked.
For example, if you have a catastrophic illness or accident, your out-of-pocket costs could be as little as $4,000 or as much as $11,000 depending on which plan you pick. If you don't have coverage, then your bills could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Doing the right (smart) thing during the open season could save you lots of money, lots of grief (and maybe your life) next year. Doing the wrong thing which is nothing could be the equivalent of tossing $1,000 out the window.
The world's leading authority on your health plans needs is you. You know what you can spend for premiums, what you expect for them and (to some extent) your medical condition. Once you've figured all that out you are good to go to shop for health insurance.
Federal workers will get lots of help at the office and on the Internet. Federal retirees (or someone helping them) can go on the Internet (try, www.RetireeHealthPlans.org).
Retirees can also get detailed information from Ken Glass, insurance expert for the National Association of Retired Federal Employees. NARFE (703/838-7760) has detailed health plan information in its members-only magazine, Retirement Life.
As always, we will lean heavily on the expert advice of Walton Francis, author of the Washington Consumers Checkbook Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees. It's available in area book- and drugstores for $8.50 (or by calling 202/347-7283).
Checkbook says that premiums alone don't tell the story, unless you are never sick. Most people use their health insurance some a little, some a lot and that changes your out-of-pocket costs, maximums, deductibles, etc.
So, Checkbook figures in premiums plus likely costs for light, medium and heavy medical years, and also based on the size of your family (from self only to big families), and your status (active or retired).
For instance: For a family of two with average bills next year Kaiser Mid-Atlantic, a health maintenance organization (HMO), would cost $2,020 in premiums and uncovered expenses. Your lowest cost fee-for-service plan would be Blue Cross basic, $2,750 and the lowest-cost special plan is Secret Service, at $3,100. For self-only coverage you can cut those total costs in half.
Also rated as best buys among the HMOs are MD-IPA, Aetna and CareFirst Blue Choice. Checkbook also recommends that both workers and retirees look at the brand-new, consumer-driven APWU (American Postal Workers Union) plan. In the fee-for-service plans, check out APWU's Consumer Driven plan, Mail Handlers standard, Blue Cross standard and GEHA standard.
Checkbook recommends that federal workers and retirees consider the APWU plan (you don't have to be a postal worker to participate). It gives cash credits that can't be spent to cover otherwise uncovered costs. It says careful management can save policyholders money. But NARFE warns that the plan can create "gaps" that could be hazardous to your wallet.
Picking the best health plan isn't brain surgery. Neither is it a walk in the park. But it's worth doing a thorough job.
Since much of the information is now on the Internet (and in some cases only on the Internet) people who aren't computer friendly should find a friend who can help them through the open season.
Pay/annuity increases
Two of the three major federal/military pay raises are done deals.
Uniformed military personnel will get a 4.1 percent raise in January. Retired federal/military personnel will get a 1.4 percent cost-of-living adjustment, reflecting the low inflation rate.
The mystery number remains the size of the federal white-collar pay raise.
The president originally proposed a 2.6 percent adjustment. Congress wanted 4.1 percent but hasn't and may not finalize it.
The White House probably on purpose let a key deadline pass in August that has moved the amount of the civilian raise to 3.1 percent. If nothing happens in this lame-duck session of Congress (and that's likely), then the January federal raise will be 3.1 percent. It's likely the president will designate one percentage point of that increase toward locality adjustments.
Long-term care
Don't forget the federal long-term-care insurance open season ends Dec. 31. Feds and retirees can sign up anytime for individual LTC policies from outside firms. But there is a deadline for the federal program, which is the best bet for people who (because of age or health) can't get, or can't afford outside individual policies.
With area nursing home costs running $60,000 or more (and home care getting more expensive) the question you need to ask yourself is this: Can I afford not to have LTC?

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