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Report: White House to extend health care to firefighters

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Lauer (photo courtesy of NFFE)

The Denver Post today reported that the White House has decided to allow seasonal federal firefighters to purchase the same health insurance as other federal employees, almost a month after one firefighter’s online petition for benefits went viral.

Most federal employees get health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan. But more than 8,000 seasonal federal firefighters aren’t eligible for FEHBP because they usually work less than six months each year. U.S. Forest Service firefighter John Lauer started an online petition in late May after his friend and fellow firefighter’s son was born prematurely. Because Lauer’s friend had no health insurance, he had to spend $70,000 on his son’s treatments.

The National Federation of Federal Employees heard about Lauer’s petition and began promoting it in mid-June. It soon gathered more than 100,000 signatures and NFFE began talking to the Office of Personnel Management about the problem.

And according to the Denver Post:

On a a recent trip to Colorado Springs, the president was apparently moved by the men and women firefighters he met, senior administration officials said in an interview Tuesday. When he returned to Washington, he told his cabinet that he wanted to “find a solution” for the hundreds of workers toiling in dangerous conditions without the option to buy in to federal insurance.

Administration officials told the Post that OPM will extend the health benefits to firefighters by the end of July.

NFFE just issued a statement lauding the decision.

“No longer do our firefighters have to fear incurring thousands in medical bills if they are injured outside of the job, or if their child gets sick,” NFFE National President William Dougan said. “These brave individuals put their lives on the line every year to protect our homes and communities. I could not be more proud that this new policy returns the favor by giving them the protection they need.”

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Firefighter’s petition for health benefits goes viral

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Lauer (photo courtesy of NFFE)

An online petition to extend federal health care benefits to seasonal wildland firefighters is spreading like … well … wildfire.

John Lauer, a temporary firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service, and thousands of his colleagues aren’t eligible for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan because they only work for the government six months out of each year. But those six months are extremely busy — Lauer and other firefighters usually work 16-hour shifts each day — and dangerous.

And when medical misfortune strikes a firefighter’s family, it can be devastating. Lauer said his godson Rudy — the son of a friend and fellow firefighter — was born prematurely. Because Lauer’s friend didn’t have FEHBP health insurance, Rudy’s treatments cost $70,000.

Lauer had enough. He started an online petition on change.org in late May, hoping to get 100,000 signatures and send it to President Obama. The National Federation of Federal Employees, of which Lauer is a member, said it gathered about 700 signatures over the next couple of weeks. On June 13, NFFE heard about the petition and began pushing it to its Forest Service bargaining unit employees.

Interest in the petition exploded. By Friday morning, it crossed the 10,000-signature mark. At the time of this blog’s publication, it had nearly 45,000 signatures.

“I couldn’t stand by quietly anymore and watch my godson’s parents suffer without health insurance,” Lauer said in a NFFE news release. “Stories like this are a dime a dozen for seasonal firefighters. These are some of the bravest, most dedicated people I have ever met. They deserve insurance.”

NFFE said Lauer is currently fighting a fire in Colorado and was unavailable for comment. NFFE said the Forest Service hires between 5,000 and 10,000 seasonal wildland firefighters each year.

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Moving to cheaper health care plans? We want to hear from you

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Federal employees have endured several years of steep hikes to their health care premiums. Has this prompted you to switch health care plans, perhaps to a cheaper alternative? Or are you trying out high-deductible health plans, or consumer-driven health plans?

We’d like to hear from you, and why you’re switching health plans. E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com if you’d like to talk.

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Problems with FEHBP enrollment? Let us know

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We’ve heard from a few readers recently who say they’re having problems with OPM’s processing of their health care enrollment requests, and are wondering if there are more issues out there. Have you experienced any difficulties with OPM and your FEHBP lately? Are your changes not going through, getting mistakenly deactivated, or anything else? What kind of service are you getting from OPM?

We’d like to hear from you. E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com to share your story. If you’d like to remain anonymous, that’s fine.

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Health care reform, explained in one handy cartoon

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Confused about the health care reform bill? You’re not alone. According to a new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health care policy research organization, 53 percent of Americans say they still don’t know what the health care bill means. And confusion is growing — that number is 8 percentage points higher than in August.

Considering the complexity of the matter, rabid politicking, and the spin thrown around over the last year or so (death panels, anyone?), it’s not surprising so many Americans are in the dark. But Kaiser has recently released a video that hopes to clear up some of the misconceptions. It’s a little cutesy, but it does a pretty good job summing up the overall structure of health care reform and how it will work in a shade over nine minutes.

(Oh, and as for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program premiums, still no word from OPM on when they’ll be released. As soon as we hear something, our trusty FedLine readers will be the first to know.)

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Health care reform, FEHBP and you

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The Office of Personnel Management this afternoon released the latest Benefits Administration Letter detailing how health care reform is going to affect federal employees.

One of the bigger changes affecting Federal Employees Health Benefits Program enrollees is the extension of coverage for adult children of feds. Currently, only unmarried dependent children younger than 22 are eligible for coverage. But the health care changes will expand coverage to adult children up to age 26, as well as removing residency and dependency requirements for coverage. And there’s a few other firsts for adult children (younger than 26, of course):

  • Married adult children of feds will be eligible for FEHBP coverage. However, their spouses or their own children will not be eligible for coverage.
  • Adult children who are eligible for or have their own employer-provided health insurance will be able to switch to mom’s or dad’s FEHBP.
  • Adult stepchildren of feds won’t need to live with the enrollee in a parent-child relationship to be eligible for coverage.
  • Adult children are not required to be students or have prior or current insurance coverage to be placed on their parent’s plan.
  • Foster children are also eligible until they turn 26.
  • Children who cannot support themselves because of a mental or physical disability that began before they turned 26 will be eligible for continued coverage even after they pass that age.

For most feds, these changes will take effect Jan. 2, the first day of the first full pay period in 2011. OPM had been hoping to convince Congress to change the law allowing them to extend coverage earlier, but that hasn’t happened yet and the legislative schedule is tightening up fast.

How do you get your newly-eligible adult kid onto your health plan? Glad you asked. Hit the jump for the answer.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Kaiser: Employees’ share of health care costs rising

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The Kaiser Family Foundation today released a sobering report about the state of health care costs in America. Employees are paying on average $4,000 per year for their share of family health care coverage this year. That’s 14 percent, or $482, more than they paid last year.

That far outpaces the overall 3 percent increase in family health premiums, meaning families are increasingly shouldering the burden of health care costs.

Overall, average annual family health care premium costs have increased by 114 percent since 2000, from $6,438 to $13,770. But over that time, workers’ shares have increased by 147 percent, from $1,619 to $3,997. Families shelled out 29 percent of the cost of health care premiums this year, as opposed to a quarter a decade ago.

Just to be clear, this report is on nationwide health care costs, not federal employees’ costs. But these trends don’t bode well for feds either, especially since feds’ share of FEHBP costs have also gradually increased over time — most recently from 31 percent in 2009 to 33 percent in 2010 for the popular Blue Cross standard family plan. (That also means Blue Cross standard family enrollees are paying higher-than-average shares, according to Kaiser’s data.)

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FEHBP open season dates announced

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"Duck season!" "Wabbit season!" "Duck season!" "Wabbit season!" What? That's not the open season OPM is talking about? Never mind.

"Duck season!" "Wabbit season!" "Duck season!" "Wabbit season!" What? That's not the open season OPM is talking about? Never mind.

The Office of Personnel Management just released a letter that said this year’s open season for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program will run from Monday, Nov. 8 through Monday, Dec. 13. Federal employees will be able to select their health, dental and vision insurance plans and enroll in a Flexible Spending Account between those dates.

Anyone already enrolled in a health, dental or vision plan will stay enrolled in their current plan unless they choose to change or cancel it. But Flexible Spending Accounts don’t carry over from one year to another — enrollees must set up an account again if they want to keep directing pretax money to an account used to pay for medical and other expenses.

What’s that you say? Wasn’t OPM going to simplify the open season schedule beginning this year so it runs along the easy-to-remember dates of Nov. 1 to Nov. 30? Well, that’s still in the works, apparently. The April 19 draft regulation changing the schedule hasn’t yet been finalized. And OPM said that once it is approved, the simplified schedule will take effect next year.

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Health care reform: What do you think?

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Federal Times would like to hear from federal employees who might be affected by the health care reform bill passed last week.

Do you have an adult child who can get health coverage as a result of the bill? Are you concerned about the excise tax or how it might affect your premiums? Are you worried that putting the Office of Personnel Management in charge of insurance exchanges could take its attention away from its traditional missions? Send us an e-mail at slosey@federaltimes.com.

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Biden opens mouth, inserts foot

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Just leave it to Joe Biden to find a way to embarrass himself in his administration’s moment of triumph. (FYI, the following video contains a half-mumbled profanity, in case your co-workers are sensitive to that kind of thing.)

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There’s only one proper way to respond to that:

Facepalm: Because words can't express how stupid that was.

Facepalm: Because words alone can't express how stupid that was.

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