- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

For more than a decade, Congress has delayed passing appropriations bills (to pay the new fiscal year bills) either by design — to create a “government shutdown” crisis — or incompetence or sloth.

This year they will blame it on Hurricane Katrina.

But the failure to act on the appropriations bills earlier means that things that should have been settled are still up in the air. Or off the radar screen.

Federal workers went into August thinking that their January pay raise would be either 2.3 percent (as proposed by the White House) or 3.1 percent. The higher figure is part of a bipartisan push to ensure that feds get the same percentage increase as military personnel get in January.

The raise is one of many that hasn’t been approved and may not be cleared by the start of the fiscal year.

Other pro-federal proposals that had some life earlier this year appear to have been blown away by the hurricane, and the extended timeouts by politicians.

One such bill is a plan to let retired feds pay health premiums with pre-tax dollars. The option is called Premium Conversion (PC). Most feds have it even though many don’t realize it. The option can save them up to $500 per year in taxes.

But they notice it when they retire because PC isn’t available to retirees, unless Congress changes the tax code. That probably isn’t going to happen with what’s left of the session.

Health premiums

Averages are helpful, up to a point. But its nice to know the maximum as well as the minimum depth of a river — not just the average depth — before you try to wade across it. Many feds feel the same way about the “average” 6.9 percent increase in their health premiums for 2006.

That’s the lowest increase in nearly a decade, despite a huge jump in medical inflation and better drugs and medical techniques that are keeping sicker people alive much longer. And saving people who — using 1995 medicine — otherwise would die.

But the bad news is that premiums still are going up — much more in some plans.

Next year, the “average” fed will pay $12.79 more each pay period (every two weeks) for family coverage. The employee premium will be $130.17 biweekly. The government share of the premium (roughly 72 percent on “average”) will go up $16.83 per pay period, for a total biweekly cost to Uncle Sam of $306.82.

While most nonfeds would do virtually anything to get the same cradle-to-grave coverage as Vice President Dick Cheney and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and other feds, many civil servants still resent their program and increases in premiums.

The good news is that federal health plans — which, like private plans, have skimpy dental benefits — will offer better options next year. The catch, however, is that federal/postal workers and retirees will have to pay the full premium for any optional dental plan they elect.

Once that goes into effect, lobbyists for federal/postal unions will begin a push for premium sharing (like the regular health plan) with the government. But that will be a long, uphill fight.

See why folks who try to stay current are especially confused this year?

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

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