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

Aggressive Lobbying on Pay Issues, Veterans Suicide Prevention and More

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Two major federal employee unions have gathered for their annual legislative conferences, and while their styles may be a bit different, one thing is clear: they are both hitting Capitol Hill aggressively on behalf of their members’ job security, resources, pay and benefits. One area of focus for the National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees is repealing the across-the-board cuts from sequestration scheduled to return in October.

“If I meet one more politician who tells me we need to tighten our belts, I’m going to take my belt off and I’m going to whoop his ass,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox, in a speech to union members Monday.  

NTEU President Colleen Kelley was much less combative, but her message was similar: Sequestration has “shackled agencies in myriad other ways” in addition to hiring freezes, furloughs and decreased training, she said during that union’s conference last week.  “If Congress does not adequately fund our agencies, we will fail in our efforts to deliver on our missions, period.”

Other items on the unions’ agendas include: keeping the Homeland Security Department open past Feb. 27, when funding is scheduled to run out; obtaining a more generous pay raise than the 1.3 percent President Obama proposed in his fiscal 2016 budget; and protecting federal employee retirement benefits. AFGE noted it will be meeting with the most Republicans ever.

As lawmakers consider the unions’ requests, they may be interested in Federally Employed Women’s latest map showing where federal employees and federal retirees actually live. As the group put it, the map – released earlier this week – illustrates that there are federal workers or retirees in just about every district.

“The next time lawmakers consider cutting benefits for federal workers or retirees, let them remember that they are referring to their own constituents’ livelihoods,” said Michelle Crockett, FEW’s national president, in a statement. 

One issue that most lawmakers do seem to be able to agree on is improving veterans’ access to mental health care. Both the House and Senate have now passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, and presented it to President Obama for his signature. The bill requires independent reviews of the Veterans Affairs Department’s mental health care services and programs to prevent suicide. It also establishes a pilot program to repay the student loans of psychiatrists who commit to working for the Veterans Health Administration, and another to assist service members transitioning from active duty.

“Our veterans deserve the best care, and it’s all too frequent that our nation’s heroes are falling through the gaps,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who helped shepherd the bill through the Senate. “Sadly, Clay Hunt was one of those brave Americans. Congress has come together to give veterans the access to the support they need after working to secure our freedoms. We must do a better job for our veterans.”

Meanwhile, federal benefits issues aren’t just cropping up on the Hill. BuzzFeed touched on one in its wide-ranging interview with Obama on Tuesday. BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith asked Obama why federal employee health plans “largely don’t cover gender reassignment surgery” even though federal policy bans discrimination against transgender people, and whether they should cover it. The president didn’t have a direct answer, noting:

You know, I haven’t looked at that policy. My general view is that transgender persons, just like gays and lesbians, are deserving of equal treatment under the law. And that’s a basic principle. As you mentioned, my sense is that the Supreme Court is about to make a shift, one that I welcome, which is to recognize that — having hit a critical mass of states that have recognized same-sex marriage — it doesn’t make sense for us to now have this patchwork system and that it’s time to recognize that, under the equal protection clause of the United States, same-sex couples should have the same rights as anybody else.

Obama did sign an executive order last year, protecting transgender federal employees. The Office of Personnel Management stopped banning Federal Employees Health Benefits Program plans from covering gender reassignment surgeries effective this year, but coverage isn’t mandatory. 

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