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

Presidential Contenders and Pay for Performance, Changes to Prescription Drug Benefits and More

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This has been a relatively quiet week for pay and benefits news, with Congress leaving town and the Republican presidential candidates largely leaving the federal workforce out of their first debate. The one exception to that rule has been Carly Fiorina, who has made downsizing the federal government a theme of her campaign and said during the “kids table” debate on Aug. 6 that she “understands bureaucracies, how to cut them down to size and hold them accountable.”

Fiorina’s accountability measures would include firing feds more readily (especially those who watch porn, another pet topic of hers), and pay for performance. Republican rival Jeb Bush is also a fan of pay for performance, and gave a speech on civil service reform. But by and large, the other presidential contenders have not made federal workforce issues a focus of their campaigns.

Meanwhile federal employee advocates and officials with the Thrift Savings Plan are taking the opportunity to remind people that proposals to cut the rate of return on the government securities (G) fund may resurface. The immediate threat in the highway bill has dissipated, but “we can’t assume that it’s dead, dead, dead,” said Kim Weaver, the TSP board’s director of external affairs, last week. 

So the TSP will continue to crunch numbers and educate lawmakers and their staffs about the adverse impact on TSP participants of limiting the rate of return on the G Fund, Weaver said. 

The proposed change that is causing concern, though it is not currently on the table, would affect the calculation of the interest rate for the G Fund, essentially basing it on a three-month, rather than a four-year, average. Such a change would decrease the fund’s rate of return from an average of 2.25 percent annually to an average of 0.02 percent, making it virtually worthless for TSP enrollees. “Participants will receive a significantly lower rate of return on the G Fund that will not allow them sufficient growth to meet investment objectives, which includes saving enough for retirement and protecting against inflation,” said a TSP board summary.

Office of Personnel Management officials on Aug. 6 sent chief human capital officers and other officials involved in health and wellness programs a reminder of another sort: a memo detailing resources available to nursing mothers, in recognition of World Breastfeeding Week. The memo noted that the 2010 Affordable Care Act requires agencies to provide a private space other than a bathroom for new mothers to pump milk for up to one year after the birth of a child, and it also said that all insurance carriers in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program offer help for nursing mothers, including breast pumps and educational programs. Tricare offers similar services, the memo said.

The memo listed several resources for agencies looking to enhance their programs. OPM and the Health and Human Services Department’s Office on Women’s Health will host a webinar on the subject of breastfeeding support at 1:30 on Aug. 25. For more information, email: worklife@opm.gov 

In other health care news, TRICARE beneficiaries will have to obtain refills for certain drug prescriptions through the mail, or at military treatment facilities starting Oct. 1, according to a new interim final rule from the Defense Department. The new policy affects refills of non-generic prescription “maintenance medications,” or drugs that people take on a regular basis for chronic conditions, such as high cholesterol or blood pressure. The change does not apply to medications for sudden infections or illnesses. The head of the Defense Health Agency will maintain and update a list of covered medications, available online or by telephone, and agency will contact eligible beneficiaries about the change, stated the rule, published on Aug. 6 in the Federal Register.

And finally, one perk that feds might take for granted appears to be on its way out. The Government Accountability Office has ruled that agencies can no longer use taxpayer money to buy disposable cups, plates and cutlery for employees, as such purchases constitute personal expenses. The case GAO considered related to the National Weather Service, but GAO established a “general rule” regarding the purchase of disposable plates, cups and cutlery using public funds, saying: “There can be no doubt that disposable plates, cups, and cutlery are personal items, and that the benefit of their use (and thus the cost of acquiring them) inures to the individuals who use them. It is axiomatic that public funds are generally not available for the cost of personal items for the public’s employees.”

It might be wise to start packing a fork with your lunch. 

(Image via  / Shutterstock.com)

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