Good news for workers on leave without pay

Late this summer the Office of Personnel Management issued a regulation pertaining to employees who go on leave without pay (LWOP) or whose pay is insufficient to cover their Federal Employee Health Benefit (FEHB) premium payments.

This regulation was designed to ensure that affected federal employees are aware of their options when they decide whether to continue their FEHB coverage.

Specifically OPM directed federal agencies to notify such employees in writing of an opportunity to continue FEHB coverage. The regulation further states that employees who want to continue enrollment while on LWOP must agree to pay the premiums directly to their agencies or have the premiums withheld from future pay. Ditto for employees whose pay is less than the FEHB premium.

OPM's action followed an earlier one in November 1994 when the agency proposed a number of changes to the FEHB program but stopped short of requiring agencies to notify these feds in writing of the option to continue FEHB coverage.

OPM said it did not include this provision because of concern that the proposed regulation did not clearly state what would happen to the FEHB enrollment of affected employees if they did not elect in writing to continue or terminate their FEHB enrollment.

That concern according to OPM has been addressed in this year's regulation and its requirement that agencies provide employees with a written notice of the option of continuing or terminating their FEHB coverage. Employees who do not return a signed form to their employing office within 31 days after they receive their notices will have their enrollment terminated. The termination is retroactive to the end of the last pay period in which a health insurance premium was withheld from pay. Terminated employees however are entitled to a 31-day temporary extension of coverage and may convert to an individual contract for health benefits.

In addition employees who are prevented by circumstances beyond their control from returning a signed form to the employing office during the 31-day period may request the employing office to reinstate coverage. And employees who terminate their enrollment while in LWOP status may enroll in the FEHB program upon their return to pay status.

The OPM regulation also directs that feds who are granted LWOP in excess of 365 days pay the employee contribution for the FEHB coverage directly to their agency on a current basis. Payment must be made after each pay period in accordance with a schedule established by the agency. If the agency does not receive payment by the due date the agency must notify the employee in writing that continuation of coverage depends upon payment being made within 15 days after receipt of the notice.

There's one potential problem: OPM eliminated its earlier requirement that agencies send the notice of non-payment to the employee by certified mail with return receipt requested. That means agencies can now put a letter in the mail to an employee giving him 15 days to pay up or be terminated. If payment isn't received agencies can terminate the employee without evidence that the letter was ever received.

I worry about that requirement because I do not have faith in the U.S. Postal Service. I'm not quite sure why OPM eliminated this requirement it seems like a good provision that protects the rights of employees and does not represent a significant burden to agencies. I would think the folks in an agency's mail room would be up to that task of sending certified mail but apparently OPM does not.

In summary OPM has issued a regulation that provides employees with certain protections but weakens others particularly by eliminating the requirement that agencies send written notices to employees via certified mail. I am afraid this "simplification" may backfire. Stay tuned.Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who is a regular contributor to Federal Computer Week.

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