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3 Steps to Navigating Open Season

The end is near! The end of the 2017 health insurance open season, that is. It comes Monday, Dec. 11. As I am writing this column, there are only 3 days, 16 hours and 9 minutes left. (The Office of Personnel Management has a countdown clock.) By the time you read this, it’ll be crunch time. If you’re still not sure how to navigate your open season options, here’s a three-step guide to help you.

Whether you’re actively employed or retired, open season is an opportunity to tailor your insurance needs to your stage in life and you and your family’s needs. It may also be an opportunity to lower your taxable income by participating in premium conversion, flexible spending accounts, or health savings accounts. If your health has changed recently, it’s an opportunity to explore other options that might better serve you.

Before you follow the steps below, it’s a good idea to visit the Office of Personnel Management’s guide to making open season changes, where you’ll find forms, links to plan websites, comparison programs and much more laid out in a very user-friendly format.

Step One: Choose Your Health...

5 Year-End Money Saving Tips

I don’t know about you, but it seems like this year flew by faster than usual. We’re already in the midst of the annual health insurance open season (the last day is Monday, Dec. 11), some of you are winding down the final days of your career, those who are staying are waiting for the announcement of the 2018 pay increase, and everybody seems concerned about a possible government shutdown.

Employees as well as retirees are certainly relieved that the year is ending with only positive changes to federal retirement benefits, thanks to the passage of the TSP Modernization Act. A 2 percent cost-of-living allowance for federal retirees goes into effect as of Dec. 1. (Retirees will see the increase in their December benefit, payable on Jan. 1, 2018.)

I thought now might be a good time to pass along a few tips that might make a difference to your end-of-year retirement planning:

Avoid taxes by saving in a health savings account. For 2018, self only enrollees in a high deductible health plan can contribute $3,450 tax-free to a health savings account. Self plus one and self and family enrollees can contribute $6,900 tax-free. If you...

Keep These Documents Handy

In last week’s column, we looked at the basic steps to take in filing your retirement application. But in addition to the standard forms, you may need to include additional documents with your retirement application and insurance forms, depending on your individual circumstances.

Let’s look at some of them.

For married employees:

  • Marriage certificate or proof of common law marriage—which varies depending on the laws of the state where you live.
  • The notarized consent of your spouse if you elect less than the maximum spousal survivor election on the Civil Service Retirement System or Federal Employees Retirement System application.

For divorced employees:

  • Divorce decree or court order showing entitlement of your former spouse to retirement and/or survivor benefits based on your federal employment. (If your former spouse was not awarded benefits, you may not need to include your divorce decree. Ask a human resources specialist at your agency to be sure.) If your retirement application needs to go to the court order section of the Office of Personnel Management, this can delay processing and reduce your interim retirement payments until the amount of your benefit owed to your former spouse has been determined.

For those continuing...

The Final Countdown: Filing the Papers

We’ve reached the time of year when many federal employees turn in their applications for an end-of-the-year retirement. One reason so many people retire at the end of the year is to get a large lump-sum payment for accumulated annual leave.

Retiring at the end of the year allows employees to stockpile a year’s worth of annual leave hours in addition to what they carried over from the previous year. Employees who retire on Dec. 31, 2017, Jan. 3, 2018, or Jan. 6, 2018, with more than 15 years of service, can accumulate 25 or 26 accruals of eight hours of annual leave (200-208 hours) in 2017 in addition to the 240 hours that they may have carried over from 2016.

If you’re among the people (and there are more than a few of them) who have saved up this much annual leave prior to retirement, you must really be looking forward to some time off. You will receive your lump-sum payment for unused leave from your agency payroll office a few pay periods following your retirement, usually within six weeks of your separation. There will be withholdings for federal, state, FICA, and Medicare taxes, as applicable...

What You Need to Know About Your Health Insurance Choices

Monday, Nov. 13 marked the beginning of the 2017 Federal Employees Health Benefits Program open season. According to a new GAO report on FEHBP, as of 2015, 85 percent of federal workers and 90 percent of retirees were enrolled in the program. FEHBP is the largest employer-sponsored health insurance program in the country, providing coverage to about 8.2 million people in 2016.

Two-thirds of those participants were enrolled in one of the two options offered as part of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association’s nationwide fee-for-service plan.

There are, of course, many other options available to FEHBP participants. But Office of Personnel Management data indicates that between 2005 and 2015, the annual percentage of FEHBP enrollees who changed their plan enrollment by choice—rather than because of mergers or plan terminations—ranged from 5 percent to 7 percent.

Why, with so many choices, do federal employees and retirees seldom switch health plans? Part of the reason may be a lack of understanding the differences in the many plan choices.

In 1960 there were only four plan types, and OPM placed them into two categories: fee-for-service and health maintenance organization. Since then, many options have emerged within the broad...