Monday, March 1, 2004

There are two things that most active and retired feds have in common with Al Gore, Lady Bird Johnson, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and the first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong.

They are:

• Coverage in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program.

With nearly 10 million members, the program is the biggest “company” plan in the nation. With the employer, Uncle Sam, paying 72 percent of the premium, and with cradle-to-grave coverage, it is also probably the best health plan in the nation.

The federal plan covers career civil servants and career politicians, as well as their spouses, their survivors and, in many instances, their ex-husbands or ex-wives and grandchildren.

• Poor dental benefits.

Participating health maintenance organizations in the federal program offer the best dental benefits, but they are still not so hot, and besides many people don’t like HMOs.

Feds have been clamoring for a long time for better dental benefits in the health plan. So have many politicians who belong to the plan and who — along with their spouses and children — have teeth, too. Now there is a movement in Congress to give feds and retirees something to smile about: better dental coverage.

One problem is that Congress for years has told the Office of Personnel Management, which runs the health program and negotiates benefits, to keep annual premium increases to a minimum. Premiums have risen each year, but the percentage increase generally is much lower than for nonfederal group plans. The primary reason is that OPM — on orders from Congress to save money — has frozen dental benefits. Many health plans want to improve the benefits, but they can’t promise to do it without a corresponding increase in premiums.

The best bet for improved dental benefits is probably some kind of supplemental policy that the government would negotiate for program members. It would have its own set of premiums and its own risk pool.

Meanwhile, members who demand better dental benefits and at the same time insist that premium increases be minimized should be flossing more and talking less.

Merit pay

A number of civilian feds in the Defense and Homeland Security departments are so fearful of their agencies’ new pay-for-performance systems that they want to move to another federal department.

At one time that would have been feasible. Now it’s an out-of-the-kettle-into-the-fire situation. Where are they going to go? A spot check with several agencies, large and small, indicates that all of them or their top officials like the idea of performance pay.

Now that the Defense and Homeland Security departments have broken the ice, it is a question of when, not if, performance pay will spread governmentwide.

Defense is planning to replace the regular flat pay raises that all employees get each January, and the within-grade raises that workers earn — depending on how long they have been in grade — every one, two or three years. Those raises are worth 3 percent and are in addition to any regular January pay increase.

Many feds fear performance pay, in which raises are based on ratings from supervisors, because they think it will legalize the buddy system and benefit those who play office politics. They also worry that denial of raises will be used to drive out workers to create vacancies for friends of supervisors and managers, or political appointees. That is one reason the automatic raises were put in place years ago.

• Mike Causey, senior editor at, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or

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