Maryland lawmaker tries to ease federal employees’ fears about health care

It was supposed to be a discussion of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program's Open Season, but many participants in Monday's town hall meeting in Montgomery County, Md., expressed concern over the health care reform package before Congress.

At the Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton, Md., Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, tried to assure a crowd of about 200 people, mostly retirees, that current health care reforms under consideration would not have an adverse effect on their federal health benefits. Many current and former federal employees reside in Van Hollen's Montgomery County congressional district.

"We're trying to keep what works with our current system, and fix what's broken," Van Hollen said. "There is nothing in this [House] legislation which would reduce the benefits of the federal employees plan." The House passed its health care reform package on Nov. 7. The Senate leadership has not unveiled their version yet, but it is expected to be similar to the one passed by the Senate Finance Committee in October.

Van Hollen was joined by union officials and a representative from the Office of Personnel Management.

The lawmaker noted that the version the Senate Finance Committee passed included a tax on individual health care plans worth more than $8,000 and family plans valued at more than $21,000, which some lawmakers have said could affect FEHBP enrollees because many of those plans are above that threshold.

"It's not in the House bill for a reason. They believed it was not an appropriate course of action," Van Hollen said of his colleagues in that chamber. "We're going to keep fighting for our version of the bill.

Van Hollen said the public option would expand the choices available to FEHBP enrollees by encouraging insurers to lower their prices for everyone; he also said the package would not result in significant cuts in Medicare and could perhaps even boost benefits for Medicare enrollees.

But not everyone at the forum was convinced that their health plans would not be adversely affected by overall health care reform.

"They keep acting like it's a free lunch," said John Hite, a retiree from the Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Md., after the meeting. "But I just can't believe it… You can't get blood from a turnip."

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