Johnson, Meadows say savings from under-utilized program could go toward retirement, security clearance backlogs.
A pair of Republican lawmakers introduced a bill Tuesday that would repeal an Office of Personnel Management program to provide national insurance plans for states that request them, citing it as underutilized.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., introduced the Repeal Insurance Plans of the Multi-State Program Act, which would axe OPM’s Multi-State Plan program.
The Affordable Care Act requires OPM to contract with at least two national health plans to act as competitors in the insurance markets of every state. But only Arkansas has agreed to offer an MSP in 2018, a decrease from 22 states in 2017. At its peak in 2015, 36 states participated in the program.
And although the Obama administration had envisioned MSPs providing insurance for 750,000 people when fully implemented, with just Arkansas participating, projections for 2018 enrollment are a paltry 2,000.
Johnson said in a statement that the program costs taxpayers $10 million a year, including expenses and the salaries of the program’s administrative staff. That money could be better spent on other initiatives, like OPM’s efforts to reduce retirement and security clearance backlogs, he argued.
“This mandate is the definition of government waste,” Johnson said. “The program has failed to meet statutory requirements and is diverting necessary resources from what should be the OPM’s priorities, such as retirement and security backlogs.”
Meadows said the program is outside the scope of OPM’s mission, and called it a waste of resources.
“It makes no sense for the OPM to dedicate its finite resources toward the creation of government plans that clearly do little, other than stifling the competition our health insurance market so desperately needs,” he said. “The OPM should not be in the business of contracting health insurance plans.”
But it is unclear how much an extra $10 million would aid OPM’s long-running work to reduce the backlog on retirement claims or security clearance investigations. Although in years past, the agency has requested additional resources to tamp down on the retirement backlog, officials have blamed spikes this year on President Trump’s temporary hiring freeze and, more recently, an inability to afford overtime for employees under a short-term continuing resolution.
Last month, OPM received 5,572 retirement claims, down from 8,850 in October. But the number of claims processed also decreased, from 6,818 in October to only 5,138 last month. At the end of November, the retirement backlog ballooned to 19,294, the highest it has been since April.
An OPM spokesperson said Tuesday that the agency will examine the bill for its potential impact as the legislation moves forward.
A Government Accountability Office report on the security clearance backlog released Tuesday suggested the problems plaguing that process are as much financial as organizational.
“Reform efforts involve coordination among a number of agencies...which is both time and resource intensive,” the report said.
In fact, the National Background Investigations Bureau, the newly created component of OPM responsible for clearance investigations, reported that between 2016 and 2017, it added 600 funded field investigator positions and hired 646 people. It plans to continue to ramp up staffing moving forward.
Analysts said a number of organizational changes could boost NBIB’s processing speed in the coming year.
“NBIB officials said they expect that the bureau will have migrated to the new organizational structure substantially by mid-2018,” GAO wrote. “The transition also involved some organizational changes intended to streamline certain business processes or more effectively manage background investigations as the organization has continued to evolve.”
In recent months, Democrats have placed some of the blame for OPM’s struggles with these backlogs on the lack of a permanent OPM director. President Trump nominated Jeff Pon to the lead the agency in September, but Johnson, in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, threatened to block Pon's confirmation until he received documents related to a 2013 OPM rule allowing congressional employees to purchase insurance on the D.C. Small Business Health Options Plan exchange and receive an employer subsidy.
“Continued backlogs are unacceptable,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., in August. “This issue needs the attention of OPM leadership and highlights the importance of having a Senate confirmed director and deputy director in place to help address this problem.”