- The Washington Times - Monday, November 16, 2009

Had Winston Churchill been assigned to write this column during the federal health insurance open season, his famous phrase might have been turned on its ear, “Never was so much owed by so few to so many.”

He would have been referring to the fact that after all the time and money spent each year to inform federal workers about their health plan changes, prices and options, only a handful of policyholders (6 percent) actually switch health plans. However, this year could be different.

Each year the government (that would be you, dear taxpayer) and insurance companies (because they factor it into your premiums) spend a bundle of money during the health insurance open season.

That’s the time when active and retired civil servants pick their health plan for the coming year. The open season for picking your 2010 health plan runs from Nov. 9 through Dec. 14.

Washington-area members of Congress sponsor health plan fairs, and insurance companies shell out big bucks advertising their plans on radio, TV and in the newspapers.

Most federal agencies also provide valuable (but free to employees) information through their workplace computers.

The service, supplied by the Washington Consumers Checkbook, shows premiums, benefit changes, consumer satisfaction ratings and likely total costs both in premiums and out of pocket charges for a variety of health scenarios. The idea is to help them pick the best health plan (in terms of benefits and cost) for individuals or small or large families.

The free information workers get from their agencies and from health fairs and advertising is wonderfully lavish when compared to what most private sector companies do for employees during their open season.

And that’s assuming they still offer workers health insurance.

On the subject of benefits, specifically health benefits available to workers and retirees, the Office of Personnel Management’s Web site (https://opm.gov/insure) is excellent.

Walton Francis, author of Checkbook’s Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees, thinks that more federal workers (and retirees) may switch health plans during the current open season. He hopes so, for their sake. The main reason: Higher premiums in some of the major plans.

For example:

Blue Cross-Blue Shield, far and away the most popular plan among workers (and especially retirees), is raising premiums next year.

Although the government pays an average of about 70 percent of the total premium for all employees (and even a bigger share for postal workers) the 2010 premium increase has gotten people’s attention. The total cost of its standard self-only option will go from $225.84 to $248.42 every two weeks. Of that amount, the employee payment will go up $10.63 biweekly to $80.81 taken out of each paycheck.

Next year the Blues’ popular standard family option will increase $20.48 per pay period with the employee paying $185.06 for coverage every two weeks.

Some of the health plans are going up even more. The popular Mail Handlers Plan (open to nonpostal workers and retirees, too) will cost singles $126.76 more per pay period, while the family plan will go up $52.24 every two weeks. When that increase is in place next January, the family plan will cost workers a total of $182.90 every two weeks.

GEHA, also one of the more popular and highly rated plans, is cutting premiums in its high-option plans (down $11.95 biweekly for the self-only plan and down .72 cents for the family option). Even with that reduction, however, its premiums will be about the same as the Blue Cross plans after they increase premiums.

A Florida-based officer of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association says the increases coming for a number of health plans will really hurt some lower-income people. That’s because of the big increases in some of their favorite plans and the fact that they will not be getting a cost of living adjustment in their annuities in 2010.

That’s a double whammy for the retirees because in January of this year (2009) the retirees got a 5.8 percent inflation-catchup primarily because of the oil price increases that spiked in 2008 (when people were talking about $400 a barrel oil) and fueled inflation.

Bottom line: This is not a good year to avoid doing your health plan homework. It isn’t, as Walton Francis says, “rocket science.”

Taking some time to study your options — and you have dozens of them — can easily save you thousands of dollars next year both in premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

Solution: Stick with us. During the next few weeks, we will have a series of columns listing “best buys” for singles, couples without children, couples with tons of children, and retirees (or their survivors) with and without Medicare. All of the plans are good, and all provide the most important thing, good catastrophic coverage. But some of them cost too much.

We’ll help you find the best fit for you and your family.

Happy hunting!

Mike Causey’s Federal Report runs Mondays. Contact him at mcausey@federalnewsradio.com or 202/895-5132.

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