- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Lots of former Cold War warriors are itching to get back in government. They've got decades of skills and experience that should be valuable in the fight against terrorism and in homeland defense.
Many were nudged out with a gentle shove and a $25,000 carrot in the 1990s when it was thought they were no longer needed. Now, many of their skills are at a premium, and the new buyout law should make it easier for agencies to hire (or rehire) them.
Many of the experts in language, money tracking, intelligence and photo analysis, and with special computer and high-tech skills left government when it was trying to downsize without resorting to layoffs that would have eliminated the jobs of new hires most of them women and minorities.
To downsize without wiping out diversity gains, the Clinton administration paid roughly 150,000 federal workers mostly retirement-age white males in Defense and other agencies buyouts worth $25,000 to retire.
In many cases, one of the terms of the buyout was that anyone rehired by the government within five years would have to repay the full amount of the buyout (not the lesser amount they got after taxes and deductions).
But new buyout rules, part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, make it easier for the government to make exceptions to the repayment rule for buyout takers whose skills are needed again.
The new rules also make buyouts more attractive by allowing any agency with an Office of Personnel Management-approved plan to offer buyouts to any employees it chooses without losing a job slot and without being required to make a cash payment (of up to 15 percent of the buyout takers' salary) to the federal retirement fund.
The authorizing legislation is Public Law 107-296, Sections 1313A and 1313B.
Retiree health premiums
Federal and postal retirees are fortunate in that they can continue in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program for life. So can their surviving spouses (and, in some cases, disabled children). Many, if not most, private sector retirees lose health insurance benefits when they retire or reach age 65.
But retired feds are at a disadvantage when compared with workers. The retirees pay the same premiums as do federal workers. But most don't have much money and, thanks to low inflation, they don't get the same annual raises.
Retiree annuities are indexed to inflation. In January, they got a 1.4 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA). Federal workers, whose pay raises are based on political and budgetary factors, got a 3.1 percent raise. And Congress may give them an additional one percentage point increase later this year.
The upshot is that some retirees say the average 9 percent increase in health premiums versus the 1.4 percent COLA they received means their January annuity checks were smaller than their December payments.
That's one reason that federal-postal groups, spearheaded by the Alexandria-based National Association of Retired Federal Employees, have made "premium conversion" a top legislative item. NARFE is bringing thousands of members to town next month for a Capitol Hill lobbying effort.
Premium conversion is already available to federal and postal workers. But they lose the benefit when they retire. Under premium conversion, individuals can elect to pay their health premiums in pre-tax dollars.
It lowers their taxable income and, in most cases, reduces their annual tax bill anywhere from $200 to $500. That's not a lot of money, but it would be enough to help many hard-pressed retirees pay their premiums without a strain, or allow them to buy even better coverage.
Reps. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, and Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, will push for premium conversion for retired feds this year.
Mr. Hoyer also has reintroduced his bill, which is like one sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, that would boost the government share of premiums from 72 percent to 80 percent.
It's popular with feds. But it would boost federal benefit costs and isn't likely to pass.

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