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Key developments in the world of federal employee benefits: health, pay, and much more.

Student loan help on hold

It took the Office of Personnel Management 10 years to issue a regulation allowing agencies to pay back employees' student loans, so what's another two months of waiting? In 1990 Congress gave agencies the authority to pay back some employees' student loans. Shortly after that, a governmentwide downsizing effort began, so there wasn't much demand for a benefit that would help keep employees. But hanging on to employees became a problem in the late 1990s, so last year the Office of Personnel Management worked on the rule. The rule would allow agencies to pay back up to $6,000 in student loans per employee per year. An agency could ultimately pay back as much as $40,000 of an employee's debt. OPM didn't get the regulation cleared through the Clinton White House and into the Federal Register until Jan. 11 of this year. The regulation was to take effect on Feb. 12. Then on Jan. 20, the new Bush White House put a hold on all regulations that had not yet taken effect. That included the student loan repayment regulation. In Wednesday's Federal Register, OPM officials announced that the effective date for the student loan regulation would be delayed from Feb. 12 until April 12. The delay gives the new administration time to review the regulation. While the administration reviews the rule, you can take a look through it to see how it could affect you. To read the regulation, click here. Benefits Counselor Check-Up Do you get the information you need when you call your agency's benefits counselor? In a recent Office of Personnel Management survey, federal employees said they generally get good help from benefits counselors, but they want more information on retirement benefits, financial planning and Social Security. Employees also want more pre-retirement counseling. The survey also checked in with benefits counselors themselves, who said they need more training to help people with questions on Social Security, the Federal Employees Retirement System, the Thrift Savings Plan, Medicare and workers' compensation. Federal benefits counselors feel harried. Most have numerous other responsibilities in addition to benefits counseling. In addition, there have been a lot of changes in federal benefits recently, including new transit benefits, conversion of health premiums to pre-tax dollars and life insurance changes. This year, two new funds will be available through the Thrift Savings Plan, and next year long-term care insurance will become available. Benefits counselors are worried that they won't be able to keep up with all the changes. Based on the survey, OPM officials promise to provide better training to benefits counselors across government. Read the report here: "Federal Benefits Counseling: Putting the Pieces Together". OPM has also revamped classification standards for federal HR professionals, including benefits counselors. The new standards are online here. Retirement Correction Hotline If your agency placed you in the wrong retirement system, you need to enter your information in the Office of Personnel Management's retirement corrections database. The database is online at But if you also want to talk to a real person about your predicament, call 1-888-689-3233. That's OPM's new retirement corrections hotline, which you can call to ask questions about the Federal Employees Retirement Coverage Corrections Act, get help entering your information into the database or correct and update your information. New Faces The House panel that oversees federal employee pay and benefits issues is taking shape this week. reported on Monday that Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., would retain his post as chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Civil Service and Agency Organization. The Republicans on the House Government Reform Committee are holding an organizational meeting Thursday at which members will officially be assigned to subcommittees. In addition to Scarborough, the Republican members of the civil service subcommittee are expected to be Reps. Dave Weldon, R-Fla.; John Mica, R-Fla.; Butch Otter, R-Idaho; and Connie Morella, R-Md. Weldon and Otter would be new additions to the subcommittee. Mica chaired the panel before Scarborough took over. Morella, whose suburban Maryland district is home to many federal employees, is a familiar face on the subcommittee. Democrats on the Government Reform Committee met Wednesday to get subcommittee assignments. The ranking member of the civil service subcommittee will be Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill. Serving with him on the panel will be Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Major Owens, D-N.Y. Last year, the subcommittee's members were the force behind passage of long-term care insurance legislation, which will make discounted long-term care insurance available to federal employees in 2002.

Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

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