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The movement to at least seriously consider expanding dental and vision benefits for federal employees is picking up steam in the House and Senate.

In January, Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., introduced legislation (H.R. 3751) ordering the Office of Personnel Management to study how to improve vision, dental and hearing benefits for federal employees.

The bill would require OPM to study current practices as well as present options and make recommendations on how additional benefits could be made available. The bill has passed the House and has been referred to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

The chairwoman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is working on her own legislation, described by a committee spokeswoman as "actual benefit legislation that would provide supplemental, voluntary coverage." It would provide vision and dental benefits based on the model used in the long-term care benefit currently available to federal employees.

Collins is expected to unveil her legislation in the next few days.

The long-term care program is voluntary and stands outside the standard Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. OPM negotiates prices under the program, but the government does not pay for any part of the benefit.

"Until the long-term care program, no one thought of [insurance] in terms of an employee pay-all," said Abby Block, OPM's deputy associate director for employee and family support policy. "It was groundbreaking as a new way to look at it, to use the buying leverage of the federal government and OPM's negotiation and administrative skills, but no federal contribution."

Davis told Government Executive she is confident that her bill or a variation of it, will do well in the Senate. "At this point, we're not sure if they'll just pass our bill as is, or if they'll incorporate it into the bill they have," she said. "But I feel very strongly that something will come out, because I think they feel very strongly about this issue as well."

The issue of expanded health benefits for federal employees is being pushed these days in support of recruitment and retention efforts. Current dental and vision benefits are much more widely available in the private sector and in state and local governments than at the federal level. Employees of 48 state governments have access to voluntary dental benefits, said Andrea Hofelich, communications director for the Governmental Affairs Committee. She said 95 percent of companies with 500 or more employees provide dental coverage.

"Senator Collins believes that providing dental care to federal employees is important and long overdue," Hofelich said. "Providing such coverage will help the government with its ongoing efforts to recruit and retain highly qualified workers."

"People who work for the states, counties and cities all have this kind of coverage at very reasonable rates," said a Defense Logistics Agency employee and 19-year career civil servant. "I'm not even asking for anything that reasonable. If it was even anything within $70 a month, I think people would do it."

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who co-sponsored Davis' bill, said "it's important to have benefits that compete with the private sector, and it's also a fairness and quality of life issue. When people are considering where to work, they look at the whole package."

According to Van Hollen and John Palguta, vice president for policy and research at the Partnership for Public Service, the House bill is designed to make expanded benefits a high-priority item at OPM.

"It is just not on their radar screen," Palguta said. "So Congresswoman Davis is asking them to put in on their radar screen."

OPM's Block told the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Civil Service and Agency Organization in February that the office had not looked into expansion options and did not plan on doing so because the administration had not made a decision on the issue. She said this week that the administration still did not have a position on new benefits.

"The issue of dental and vision insurance has been under discussion for many, many years. It didn't just come up with this bill," Block said. "I don't think consideration of whether it's a desirable thing to offer some kind of benefit really rests on the report or the bill. Its something clearly that has been explored in the past and undoubtedly will continue to be explored."

There's a big difference between the ongoing consideration underway at OPM and the analysis that Davis' bill would require. "What the law lays out is a rather elaborate study that would require rather extensive work on OPM's part," Block said.

"The bill doesn't give us any funds," Block added. If it passes, "we'll have to do it with our own, very limited internal resources."

Even if the bill does pass, it will not force the administration to make a decision on new benefits, Block noted. While the legislation requires OPM to make recommendations, Block said that under a Justice Department ruling, the president can make recommendations at his own discretion. In the case of this particular study, Block said, "we will provide options. We simply wouldn't say what options we preferred unless the president says to do so."

 
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