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One man, two wives and an annuity

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Nearly a decade after he died, the complicated marital turnabouts of a U.S. Forest Service employee named Don King gave rise Friday to a ruling by the  U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

First, some background. Try to follow along, it’s complicated.

In 1967, King married a woman named Diana. They divorced in 1980. They remarried in 1981. Then, they divorced again 18 months later. And yet they held themselves out to be married for years afterward, living in the same house, keeping joint accounts and even celebrating their (original) anniversary.

But in 2002, Don moved out. He married another woman, Kathryn. Before he died in 2004, Don designated Kathryn to receive his lump sum accrued annuity.

That’s when things got messy.

Both Kathryn and Diana claimed to be Don’s wife and, after  litigation, the pair struck a deal.

Diana agreed to pay Kathryn $50,000 to resolve Don’s medical and funeral expenses. And Kathryn agreed that if she got Don’s annuity payments, the money would belong to Diana.

Then, Kathryn changed her mind. And the matter ended up in court again.  Meanwhile, she applied to the Office of Personnel Management for survivor annuity funds. OPM made payments from 2004 to 2007.

But after a court ruled the settlement deal enforceable, Diana applied for survivor payments, too, prompting OPM to revoke Kathryn’s payments.

It hardly ends end there. Along came settlement No. 2, in which Kathryn released any claim to any payment Diana owed–including for Don’s expenses–while Diana waived “all claims to any future payment” that Kathryn might receive. Kathryn also turned over more than $40,000 that she received from OPM into a trust account for Diana.

Meanwhile, back at OPM, officials eventually found Diana was entitled survivor benefits. And then OPM went after Kathryn, seeking to recover the money she’d received. Kathryn didn’t deny she received the money, but argued she’d already transferred the money to Diana.

OPM didn’t back down. Once more, the matter ended up in litigation. Ultimately, Kathryn couldn’t receive a waiver from the Merit Systems Protection Board.

But, in a ruling one would cautiously assume to be the last word, the Court of Appeals for the Federal  Circuit Friday overturned the MSPB.

The court found, first of all, that Kathryn wasn’t at fault, as she was collecting benefits at a time when she thought she was entitled to them. It also ruled that she deserved a waiver, saying  she’d aimed all along to transfer Don’s retirement benefits back to Diana.

“Because the Board failed to address the substantial evidence demonstrating that recovery of the overpayment to Kathryn was against equity and good conscience, we reverse,” the court ruled.

Like the Don himself, the case is pretty complicated. So you read the ruling for yourself here.

Obama: OPM’s Berry ‘a champion for federal workers’

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John Berry (from Office of Personnel Management)

President Obama this afternoon bid farewell to departing Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry today in a statement:

John Berry has served the American people well as Director of the Office of Personnel Management.  He’s streamlined the way federal employees are hired, modernized the workplace, made the federal workforce more diverse, and increased the number of returning servicemembers hired by the government.  John has been a champion for federal workers – men and women who devote their lives to vital tasks like securing our borders, curing disease, and keeping the American people safe.  This country is better off because of John’s talent and dedication, and I’m grateful to him for his service.

After the jump, you can find Berry’s complete goodbye message to OPM staff.

Read the rest of this entry »

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OPM hopes to add six new insurers to FEHBP

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The Office of Personnel Management is now negotiating with six health care insurance carriers to add them to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, director of health care and insurance John O’Brien said Thursday.

In his keynote speech to the FEHB Carrier Conference, O’Brien said OPM added four new insurance providers last year.

O’Brien also touted OPM’s success at keeping premium increases below 4 percent for the last two years. But he also noted that even small premium increases bite at a time when  federal pay scales are frozen.

“Our low premium growth translates to roughly an additional $400 that federal employees had to pay to maintain their health coverage during that time,” O’Brien said. “That $400 did not come out of a growing salary, but from existing family and personal budgets.”

And O’Brien told the carriers that OPM wants to do more to measure insurers’ performance in FEHBP, decrease hospital readmission rates, properly administer prescription drugs, and decrease obesity.


Best Buy ends flex schedule program that OPM tried

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Federal Times last December brought you the inside story of how the once-ballyhooed Results-Only Work Environment program fizzled when it was tested at the Office of Personnel Management. In a sad postscript to that story, Best Buy — the home of ROWE, where it was first pioneered in 2005 — has just announced it is also canceling the ROWE program.

According to CNN:

Best Buy said some of the 4,000 non-store employees who took advantage of its work-from home program still may be able to telecommute or set flexible schedules. But as of Monday they’ll no longer have the freedom to make those decisions without a manager, as they had in the past.

[...]  [L]ike Yahoo, Best Buy has since fallen on hard times, and the company recently brought in a new CEO. The big-box retailer has struggled to compete in a market increasingly dominated by online stores like Amazon, and ROWE didn’t fit into the company’s turnaround plans.

The twist that set ROWE apart from your run-of-the-mill telework program is that employees had complete autonomy to decide where and when they worked, as long as they got the job done. Want to skip town, go to the beach, and cram a day’s worth of work in from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.? That was possible under ROWE, assuming you could get everything done that was expected of you.

According to reports exclusively obtained by Federal Times, ROWE flopped at OPM because managers weren’t able to hold poor performers accountable, employees had no idea if they were succeeding because they weren’t getting enough feedback from their managers, and the quality of work slumped in some cases.

While ROWE is still in effect at other businesses and local governments, it’s a disappointing development for a management idea that once was touted to be the next big thing. OPM Director John Berry at one point hoped ROWE would transform the federal workplace, and after its initial success at Best Buy, was featured on the cover of Businessweek magazine.

UPDATE: Best Buy spokesman Jonathan Sadler provided this statement: “We of course believe in employee flexibility and are simply just looking for it to come in the context of a conversation between that employee and their manager. It used to be a right about which a manager had no say, now it’s that conversation.”

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Snowquester closes DC offices Wednesday

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The Office of Personnel Management just announced that federal offices in the Washington area will be closed Wednesday due to snow. The storm — dubbed “snowquester” — has now begun, and is expected to hammer Washington. The Washington Post’s Capitol Weather Gang just tweeted that “conditions will deteriorate fast” as the main part of the snowstorm moves in to Washington.

OPM says that the closure does not apply to emergency employees and telework-ready employees who are required to work. But for everybody else, enjoy your snow day.

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Health insurance: What the Postal Service has in mind

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Lest anyone forget, Postmaster General Pat Donahoe remains keenly interested in creating a stand-alone health insurance plan for about 1.1 million U.S. Postal Service employees and retirees.

The latest reminder came at last week’s Senate hearing on the USPS’s financial crisis. Although lawmakers’ attention was predictably focused on the agency’s decision to end Saturday mail delivery, Donahoe also stressed the urgency of pulling out of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

“An astonishing 20 cents of every revenue dollar the Postal Service takes in must go toward health care costs,” Donahoe said in prepared testimony.  “By moving away from the federal system, nearly all of our employees and retirees would reap the benefits of getting equivalent or better healthcare coverage and paying less for it.”

Creation of a new health plan was a major stumbling block in contract talks with the National Association of Letter Carriers; although labor and management couldn’t reach a deal, a joint task force will keep discussing the issue, according to an arbitration panel’s recent decision.

But the Postal Service hasn’t furnished many details about what it has in mind. And employees may understandably be skeptical of any promises to provide comparable (or better) benefits at lower cost. Fortunately, the USPS inspector general took a look at the subject last year that fleshes out some specifics.

The inspector general’s report, whose conclusions drew a vigorous dissent from Postal Service management, can be read here. It’s of course possible that the USPS human resources team has since made changes to their plan; if so, however, those changes haven’t been made public.

In the meantime, here are a few takeaways from the IG’s review. By the Postal Service’s reckoning, creation of a stand-alone plan would save $52 billion. (The original total was $62.1 billion, but the agency then dropped the idea of freezing its contributions for retiree health insurance, according to the report.) Although the IG doesn’t say over what period of time those savings would occur, the key is requiring employees and retirees to move to Medicare, the taxpayer-funded medical benefits program for people aged 65 and older.

That step alone would save some $37 billion; for older employees and retirees, the Postal Service’s health plan (whatever it turns out to be) would become the back-up insurer to Medicare.  The Postal Service would also be freed of much, if not all, of the obligation to set aside billions of dollars now for future retiree care.

But from the employee/retiree perspective, there’s one immediate concern. By law, anyone eligible for Medicare Part B (which covers things like doctors’ visits and lab tests) is supposed to sign up after turning 65 or else face a 10 percent, per year, enrollment penalty.

According to the IG, there were about 88,000 USPS retirees over 65 who hadn’t signed up. Those folks would thus face late-enrollment penalties totaling $53 million per year, or an average of $625 per person. The Postal Service needs to settle that issue, the inspector general said, either by ensuring that the penalties will be waived or by deciding who’s going to foot the bill.

USPS workers and retirees could also pay more under another proposed change that would require anyone retiring after the end of this year to pay a standard deductible before the Postal Service picks up any cost not covered by Medicare. But the Postal Service would also expand coverage options from the two currently offered by the FEHBP to four. In some instances, employees could pay less than they do now. (Check out p. 11 of the IG report for a side-by-side comparison.)

The overall goal here is simple. The Postal Service, like any other money-losing enterprise, is trying to tamp down costs wherever it can. And postal workers generally pay less for their health benefits than other federal employees.

But because congressional approval is required, the Postal Service’s plans need political traction that so far appears to be lacking. At a September 2011 congressional hearing, for example, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry was notably unenthusiastic about letting the Postal Service leave the FEHBP. A fuller analysis of the potential effects was needed, Berry said, adding that he thought postal employees were “well-served” by the status quo.

In last year’s report, the inspector general recommended that USPS officials lay out to affected employees and retirees, as well as the government, “all potential cost increases, cost savings and cost shifts that would result from a transition to a Postal Service-proposed alternative health care plan.”

In their strongly worded response attached to the report, postal executives both disputed key findings and objected to what they called its “negative tone.” The Postal Service, for example, has proposed relief from the Medicare late enrollment penalties, they wrote. A draft of the report, they added, “totally ignores the fact that total costs will decrease substantially and that out-of-pocket costs for most employees and retirees will decrease.”

The Postal Service has yet, however, to make the kind of detailed disclosure urged by the IG. Until it does, a tough sales job lies ahead.

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DC feds can take leave, telework to avoid snow Thursday

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The Washington area is likely to be hit by a snowstorm tomorrow. It’s unclear how bad it might be — we may see 1 to 3 inches of accumulation, but the National Weather Service thinks it may top 5 inches.

The Office of Personnel Management just announced that, as of now, federal offices in the Washington area will still open Thursday. But employees who want to avoid the storm — and the nasty evening rush hour it is likely to bring — can take unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework.

Check back in with FedLine for updates on the government’s operating status.


STOCK Act study panel named

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The National Academy of Public Administration has announced the panel of five experts who will carry out a congressional required study on the possible effects of putting some federal employees’ personal financial disclosure statements on the Internet.

The study is due at the end of March. The panel’s members are:

David Chu, president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Defense Analyses; former Office of Personnel Management director Janice Lachance, who is now chief executive officer of the Special Libraries Association; Martha Kumar, a political science professor at Towson State University; Ronald Sanders, former chief human capital officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, now at consultant Booz, Allen, Hamilton; and retired Vice Admiral Lewis Crenshaw, who works for Grant Thornton, another consulting firm.

Chu will chair the panel, according to a NAPA announcement.  Backing up the group will be a seven-member project study team.

The online posting requirement, included in the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act signed last April, would apply to some 28,000 Senior Executive Service members, political appointees and others, according to the Office of Government Ethics. The annual disclosure statements are already public, but are typically available only on paper following a written request. The requirement was originally supposed to take effect at the end of August, but Congress has repeatedly postponed the deadline in response to concerns raised about the potential impact on employee privacy and national security. The latest delay runs until April 15.



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Did you take part in OPM’s ROWE pilot? We want to hear from you

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Federal Times would like to talk to any Office of Personnel Management employees who took part in the agency’s experiment with a Result Only Work Environment, or ROWE, program. If you’d like to talk anonymously, that’s fine. E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com.

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VA career tool may be example for other agencies

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Veterans Affairs Department employees have had access to one of the government’s best career-development tools since October.

Soon, you may see something like it coming to your agency.

Last week, top VA officials demonstrated the tool — called MyCareer@VA — at a meeting of administration and union leaders.

“When you think about your own career, there are times that you want to figure out how to get ahead, but there are also times that you may feel like you’re stuck and want to do something else,” said VA Deputy Secretary Scott Gould as he presented the website July 18 to a meeting of the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, led by Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry.

Gould and Alice Muellerweiss, dean of the VA Learning University, said the website helps employees hurdle common career setbacks.

“We know that the number one reason people leave their organizations is because they cannot see their path, they cannot chart their path, they can’t set their goals, and they don’t set up their development plan,” Muellerweiss said.

The website, MyCareerAtVA.va.gov, prompts employees to plug in their skills and experience and then provides them a variety of jobs throughout the department that — with some additional training and education — could be a fit for them down the road.

Among the website’s key features:

  • MyCareer Mapping Tool. This searches for jobs across multiple occupational families and outlines what competencies, knowledge areas and skills are needed to reach an employee’s career goal.
  • MyCareer Fit Tool. This helps match specific jobs to an employee’s self-identified career interests and work environment preferences.
  • VA Career Guides. This offers employees detailed profiles of suggested jobs and offices they might consider as future steps on their career paths. For each job, it outlines what education, licensing, recommended training, and developmental experiences are recommended, based on the user’s profile.

The website is still growing and developing. Its searchable jobs inventory is about 75 percent complete and VA managers aim to get that figure to 100 percent of mission-critical jobs by next April.

OPM’s Berry said some agencies are looking at adopting similar career-development tools and looking specifically at the VA tool as a possible role model.

To learn more about MyCareer@VA, view the video below: