- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2003

Someone once defined an expert government consultant as someone who borrows your watch, borrows your eyeglasses, then tells you what time it is and presents his bill.

Whether you find that funny, or offensive, it pretty much sums up what many career civil servants, and a growing number of politicians, think about the government’s use of consultants and especially outside contractors.

According to one think tank, contractors paid directly by the government to perform government services now outnumber feds three to one.

Supporters of contracting out federal work say contractors are more flexible, can be used as needed and then sent on their way. They don’t take up space on the federal health program, don’t get lifetime civil service benefits and — maybe most importantly — they don’t show up in head counts of federal employees and how much they earn.

Contractors can, and often do, cost more money than feds, but the fact that they are off the books enables politicians to say they have cut the cost of government when in fact they’re simply shifted costs.

Recent action by Congress (as part of the drive to give federal workers a 4.1 percent pay raise next January) could hamper the Bush administration drive to speed the process for identifying federal jobs that might/could/should be outsourced.

As many as 850,000 federal jobs — many in the Washington area — are potential candidates for outsourcing after going through a competitive bidding process. Workers from the Internal Revenue Service (which is considering using private debt collectors to get back taxes), to the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Department, fear the so-called Yellow Pages Factor.

That is if somebody can find your job — auditor, computer tech, human resources specialist, payroll operator — in the Yellow Pages your job might be privatized.

The contracting out battle isn’t going away. But whereas it appeared a few months ago that much of the government was up for bids, the tilt seems to be back in factor of keeping many more functions in-house.

Health premiums

Don’t let the “average” 10.6 percent increase in federal health premiums scare — or reassure — you. That’s an average figure.

Active and retired federal/postal workers and their survivors will be able to pick their new, 2004, health plan during the open-enrollment period. It runs from Nov. 10 through Dec. 8. Feds in the Washington area have about 16 plans to choose from. They include a number of health maintenance organizations plus five nationwide fee-for-service plans, and six special plans limited to employees of the CIA, Secret Service and federal law-enforcement personnel.

Nearly half of all federal workers, and the vast majority of federal retirees, belong to Blue Cross-Blue Shield. Its self-only standard option will go to $48.90 per pay period, an increase of $3.24 to policyholders. The family standard option will go to $112.88, an increase of $7.66 over this year’s premium.

Postal premiums

When they check out 2004 health plans, active postal workers can figure on paying a lot less. Thanks to their union contract with the Postal Service, the highly unionized clerks, carriers and mail handlers get a subsidy from the Postal Service that cuts their premium bills at least 40 percent.

• Mike Causey, senior editor at FederalNewsRadio.com, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or mcausey@federalnewsradio.com.

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