Don't forget to floss

t's midway through September and time to ask: What lies ahead in Congress for federal workers?

It could be thumbs up for improving vision and dental benefits — at some cost to federal employees. The Federal Employee Dental and Vision Benefits Enhancement Act of 2004 (S. 2657) authorizes the Office of Personnel Management to negotiate vision and dental coverage plans for federal employees and retirees. Current coverage is meager at best.

Under the act, employees would have to foot the cost of premiums for better coverage, but OPM would negotiate the lowest rates.

Meanwhile, the House has passed H.R. 3751, which requires OPM officials to study and recommend options for enhanced dental, vision and hearing benefits.

Officials at the National Association for Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) are cautiously optimistic about the passage of improved coverage this year.

"We would have preferred taking the value of the health benefit that currently goes to vision and dental care and using it for government's contribution to new vision and dental coverage," said Dan Adcock, NARFE's assistant legislative director. "But we understand budget realities, and while that may not be possible now, we hope it will be in the future."

If the new coverage is enacted, NARFE officials plan to weigh in on group premium rates before OPM officials begin negotiating with insurers. "It's our hope that the group discount that OPM negotiates will make it attractive to the federal community," Adcock said.

But whether improved benefits occur this year or next, the best medicine is to keep flossing.

Back to balance

Whatever happened to work life balance as a standard? OPM officials held a Federal Workforce Conference on performance and productivity in Baltimore last week. Workshops focused on the Human Capital Standards for Success and emphasized planning, learning, achieving results-oriented performance, closing talent gaps and ensuring accountability.

Although none of the sessions specifically addressed work life balance, some dealt with communication skills for tough situations and leadership in post-trauma environments to give human resources professionals new skills to help others in stressful times.

Still, it should be noted that work life balance — including issues such as telework, child care, elder care and, yes, stress reduction — also makes it possible to plan and perform better and can help close those talent gaps, too.

According to Abby Block, OPM's deputy associate director for employee and family support, work life programs are integrated with benefits and are a component of the Human Capital Standards for Success. "Work life balance contributes importantly to performance and productivity," she said, "and is woven into recruitment and retention of federal employees."

She points out that OPM's work life focus is on telework and employee health. "The decisions people make can affect their health status. Our goal is to give them information to help them make those decisions," she said.

For information on telework and other work life issues, go to www.opm.gov/wrkfam.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has also worked in the private sector. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.

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