Health care relief?

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) last month introduced legislation that would increase the average federal contribution to the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program. If passed, this would help make health care for feds more affordable.

Mikulski's bill (S. 319) is the Senate version of a House bill (H.R. 577) Hoyer introduced. Both bills would increase the maximum government contribution from the current 75 percent to a new high of 83 percent.

The bills come after FEHB premiums jumped 13.3 percent on average last year and 11.1 percent on average this year, with experts predicting continued increases because of higher costs for prescription drugs and greater use of health care and outpatient care by an aging workforce and a longer-living retiree population.

Feds are taking it on the chin and relief is needed. If the legislation passes, it could help each federal employee save more than $500 a year. According to Mikulski, boosting the government's share of insurance premiums for federal employees would put the government on a "more level playing field with the private sector." Hoyer said it "will enhance the value of a federal job and make us more competitive in the marketplace."

At least one employee union agrees. "The current financial formula the government uses for FEHB is inferior to standards set by other large private and state government employers," said Bobby Harnage, the American Federation of Government Employees' national president. "In the largest states and the largest unionized private firms, the employer pays between 90 and 100 percent of premiums."

But it's also true that many employers contribute far less toward their employees' health insurance, some offer no health insurance, and most employees aren't unionized. In addition, many employers offer no health insurance coverage at all to retirees once Medicare covers them, typically starting at age 65. A recent General Accounting Office report indicates that an increase in health care costs is a national phenomenon, and the Office of Personnel Management is doing a reasonably good job of containing the increase in FEHB premiums.

Harnage pointed out that moving to an 80 percent average would open the door to health insurance for many of the 250,000 uninsured federal workers who cannot afford coverage at today's rates. Now, that is a national disgrace. No fed should be without health insurance because it is unaffordable! Why hasn't any legislation been introduced to address that?

If the federal government is supposed to be a model employer and an example of how competition can be effectively used to contain costs, it's time the Bush administration got its act together. No one has stepped up to support feds who cannot afford their health insurance premiums.

Write your representatives and tell them to do something about this national disgrace!

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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