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

Furloughed Feds Will Get Paid for Oct. 1 -- Eventually

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The government shut down on Tuesday, furloughing nearly 1 million federal civilian employees nationwide. Most of them want to know when they can go back to work, and if Congress will give them back pay for those missed days.

Both issues are still up in the air, at least at the moment. But federal employees will get paid for a few hours on Tuesday, when furloughed workers reported for work to set up out-of-office messages, return government phones and computers, and close up shop for an indeterminate amount of time.

Employees will be paid for the time they spent in the office on Tuesday, preparing for an “orderly shutdown,” regardless of their furlough status. Agencies told employees to report to work on Oct. 1, Day 1 of the shutdown, to get furlough notices if necessary, and tie up loose ends for up to four hours.

“The government may not require an employee to work without compensation,” said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, by email. Of course, when workers receive their pay is another matter because that won’t happen until the government reopens. Military service members, and the Defense Department civilians who support them, will be paid on time under a law Congress passed and President Obama signed on Monday.

Also, furloughed workers shouldn’t give up hope on retroactive pay. Washington-area lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced bills that would grant back pay once government reopens, and those bills continue to gather co-sponsors. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about lawmakers in this Congress, it’s that they’re unpredictable. And, after all, 85 percent of federal workers live outside of Washington -- and they vote, too.

TRICARE Changes

The government shutdown on Tuesday has dominated the news this week, but that’s not the only thing that happened on Oct. 1.

The Defense Department on Tuesday reduced the number of Prime service areas to save money and automatically switched 171,000 TRICARE Prime beneficiaries to the TRICARE Standard option. The change affects beneficiaries who live more than 40 miles from a military clinic, hospital or Base Closure and Realignment site -- about 3 percent of the current 5.3 million TRICARE Prime enrollees.

The change does not impact active-duty service members and their families.

Fewer PSAs does not mean enrollees are losing their TRICARE benefit, Dr. Jonathan Woodson, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for health affairs, said in an April statement. Those who live within 100 miles of a remaining service area might be able to re-enroll in Prime, but the department warned it could increase travel times for primary and specialty care.

TRICARE previously notified beneficiaries of the upcoming change through letters and phone calls. Click here for more information.

Defense initially planned to eliminate some PSAs in 2007, but protests and TRICARE contract changes delayed implementation.

Legislation in committee in the House and Senate would allow affected TRICARE Prime enrollees to make a one-time decision to remain in the more affordable health insurance plan instead of moving to the program’s fee-for-service option.

(Image via tarasov/Shutterstock.com)

Kellie Lunney covers federal pay and benefits issues, the budget process and financial management. After starting her career in journalism at Government Executive in 2000, she returned in 2008 after four years at sister publication National Journal writing profiles of influential Washingtonians. In 2006, she received a fellowship at the Ohio State University through the Kiplinger Public Affairs in Journalism program, where she worked on a project that looked at rebuilding affordable housing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, NPR and Feature Story News, where she participated in a weekly radio roundtable on the 2008 presidential campaign. In the late 1990s, she worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as a career employee. She is a graduate of Colgate University.

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