- The Washington Times - Monday, December 5, 2005

Federal workers and retirees who shop carefully for health insurance will be able hang on to most of the raise they get in January, but they need to shop wisely before the open season ends Monday.

Policyholders can avoid the average 6 percent price increases by looking into less-costly health care plans.

The trick for policyholders who like their current plans is to make sure premiums aren’t going up too much, or that any benefit changes are differences they can live with. It’s also wise to find out whether your favorite doctor will be in the plan’s network of preferred providers. That could save you a bundle.

Walton Francis, author of Consumers’ Checkbook’s Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees, mentions several ways to get excellent coverage without paying top dollar. Among them:

• If one spouse still works for the government and the other spouse is retired from federal service, then make sure the working spouse pays for the family premium. Why? Because active-duty feds pay their premiums with pretax dollars (many don’t realize this).

• Buying a family plan is usually more cost-effective for a federal couple than if each purchased a single plan. Why? Although two single-plan premiums usually cost slightly less than the premium for a family plan, couples who each buy single coverage must satisfy two deductibles. That can wind up costing them more than they save in premiums.

• Feds who work overseas, or who work in support of an overseas operation, are now eligible for the Foreign Service health plan, which Mr. Francis rates as a good buy. Once open only to workers in the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Information Agency, the Foreign Service plan is also available to many employees of the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department and parts of the Agriculture and Commerce departments.

• Nearly everybody in the federal health program should consider setting up a flexible spending account. Money in the accounts is pretax, and can be used for eyeglasses, dental work and other items not covered by regular insurance. Estimate your likely out-of-pocket medical costs carefully because the flexible spending account is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition.

If you think a flexible spending account is for you, and Mr. Francis says it is for most people, then remember you can set up an account only during the regular health insurance open season, which ends Monday.

• Bear in mind that dental benefits in the federal health program have not been improved. There are several optional dental plans federal-postal workers can purchase in addition to their regular health care plans. Workers and retirees pay the full premium for the optional dental package.

Feds and retirees will be offered an array of optional dental health plans next year, in November and December, but they won’t be effective until January 2007 under the present schedule.

Shop a little. Save, potentially, a ton.

• 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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