- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2008

If you work for Uncle Sam, or are a retired fed, what could be the most important decision facing you this year must be made by Dec. 8. It is critical to your financial and physical health.

The decision: Which health plan do you want to cover you and your family in 2009.

What’s the big deal? Only this:

Doing nothing, or doing the wrong thing, could cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Getting right could save you as much as $2,000 in premiums and out-of-pocket costs next year. And save tens of thousands of dollars if you or a family member are struck by a major illness or hit by a car.

When it comes to health insurance, active and retired federal and postal workers are at the top of the food chain. They have dozens of health plans from which to choose. They can’t be excluded from coverage for any reason - even if they are old or sick or have a pre-existing medical condition.

If you are a superhealthy 25-year-old, your out-of-pocket health costs in 2009 will be minimal. Depending on the health plan you choose, it could be as little as $800 in premiums - and even less than that if you open a Health Savings Account and use it to pay the premiums.

But if you are older; have major medical problems; or suffer a stroke or heart attack or get hit by a bus (at any age), your out-of-pocket costs under the federal health program could be as little as $6,000 or as much as $14,000. It all will depend on your health, your luck and the health plan you pick within the next 14 shopping days.

The good news about the federal health program (FEHBP) is that it is open to everyone in government, anyone retired from government and their spouses, children and survivors. A frail 100-year-old retiree will pay the same premiums as a robust 30-year-old in the same plan. In addition, Uncle Sam picks up about 70 percent of the total premium.

Unlike private-sector health plans - which are becoming more expensive or are disappearing altogether - the FEHBP isn’t going away. Consider that three of the four major candidates for president and vice president in the just-completed election are part of the FEHBP. So are other members of Congress, past and present.

Premiums are going up next year. In some cases they will rise by a little; in others, such as the highly popular Blue Cross/Blue Shield Standard Option, they will go up a lot. But because workers can change during the open season, many experts say feds who are happy with Blue Cross/Blue Shield can shift to the less pricey, but still very good, BC/BS Basic Option.

They can also consider any of a number of national and localized health maintenance organizations.

Walton Francis, editor of the Checkbook Guide to Federal Health Plans, says all the plans are good. But some are too expensive for what you get in return. Mr. Francis has a “best buy” rating system that’s shown in his $9.95 book, which is available at area newstands, online at www.checkbook.org, or by calling 202/347-7283. About half of all federal agencies subscribe to the online version for their employees. Check with your human resources office to see whether you have this free service.

Mr. Francis says all of the health plans are good. But for most people some of the most expensive plans aren’t worth the premiums. Also catastrophic coverage varies.

Here are some of his suggested “best buys” for singles, couples and families with children: The American Postal Workers Union, Mail Handlers high-deductible option, Government Employees Health Association high-deductible option, Blue Cross basic and Foreign Service plan. Nonpostal workers can join the postal-union backed plans, and feds involved in national security operations can now belong to the Foreign Service plan.

Next week, we’ll look at the best buys for retirees, and examine some of the benefits changes. In the meantime, you can look at those changes on the Office of Personnel Management Web site at www.opm.gov/ insure/index.aspx.

cMike Causey, senior editor at Federal News Radio AM 1050, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or mcausey@federalnews radio.com.

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