- The Washington Times - Monday, November 21, 2005

Federal employees need to do two things to ensure the government covers their and their spouses’ retirement health care costs for life.

First, feds need to be enrolled in a family plan, even if they use and prefer a spouse’s private-sector health care plan. Private-sector plans may offer better benefits and lower premiums now, but most increase retirement premiums and some have cutoff points.

The only way to ensure that your spouse continues in the federal health care program after you die is to be enrolled in a family plan at the time of your death.

Secondly, when you retire you must provide some form of survivor annuity, even if it is a small amount, for your spouse so he or she can continue receiving federal health care coverage when you die. If you die with single coverage, or without designating a survivor annuity, your spouse will be left out in the cold.

It also is important to remember the five-year rule: To continue in the invaluable federal health care program after retirement and enjoy its guaranteed coverage, annual open seasons and group rates, you must be enrolled in any one of the federal health care plans for the five years before retirement.

There are some exceptions to the five-year rule, such as a buyout under certain conditions, but don’t count on being an exception to the rule.

Got Medicare?

Walton Francis, author of Checkbook’s Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees, says federal and postal workers and retirees can save $1,000 or more next year in premiums and out-of-pocket costs if they shop carefully during the open season. It runs through Dec. 12.

Retirees with Medicare Parts A and B can save money and pay only one premium by suspending enrollment in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Remember that is a suspension; you can come back if necessary. Don’t simply quit the FEHBP — ever.

You can get details from your current or former human resources office or, if you are a member, the Alexandria-based National Association of Retired Federal Employees.

One more tip

Think seriously about setting up a flexible spending account for 2006, which is available only to active-duty feds, not retirees.

You can use the pretax money to pay for over-the-counter drugs and other costs not covered by your regular health care plan. Because flexible spending is a use-it-or-lose it deal, make sure you estimate your likely 2006 out-of-pocket costs carefully so you don’t leave too much in your account at the end of the year.

Stay in the network

Insurance companies aren’t kidding with their preferred provider option. Use the doctors and facilities in their network, and you can get big savings. Often the co-payments to a PPO provider are token payments.

But if you go outside the network, be prepared to pay a lot more for the same treatment.

Can you have it both ways? Maybe. Find a plan with which your doctor is affiliated. It can save you a bundle.

• Mike Causey, senior editor at Federal News Radio AM 1050, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or [email protected]

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