'Tis The Open Season

Open enrollment for federal health plans and flexible spending accounts begins Monday.

Federal employees and retirees will be able to switch health plans during the annual open enrollment season, which begins Monday and runs through Dec. 8.

The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) provides health care coverage for 8.3 million federal employees, retirees and their families. In September, officials at the Office of Personnel Management announced that health insurance premiums would rise an average of 10.6 percent in 2004. Federal workers with self-only insurance coverage will pay an average of $5.01 more per pay period, or $130.26 annually. Workers with family coverage will pay an average of $11.95 more per pay period, or $310.70 annually.

OPM officials point to expensive prescription drugs, greater use of medical services, advances in technology and an aging workforce as the causes for the rise in premiums. The increase for 2004 is the fourth consecutive annual hike above 10 percent. In an effort to offset the costs for federal employees, several lawmakers have pushed legislation over the years that would raise the government's contribution to FEHBP premiums. The latest of these efforts came in February, when House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., introduced H.R. 577.

During the 2004 open season, employees can use OPM's FEHBP Web site to compare health plans. Features on the site allow employees to enter their zip codes and get a list of the health plans available in their areas. This year, 17 new insurance plans are joining the program, raising the total number of FEHBP plans to 205.

Federal employees interested in setting aside pre-tax dollars to pay for health services not covered by insurance can also sign up for flexible spending accounts from Nov. 10 to Dec. 8.

OPM first offered the benefit to federal employees last summer, and, according to agency officials, more than 30,000 government workers enrolled.

"Flexible spending accounts are effective financial management tools that can stretch the disposable incomes of account holders and ensure that funds are available, when needed, to pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses or dependent-care costs of a child or parent," OPM Director Kay Coles James said.

Using FSAs, employees can set aside up to $3,000 in health care accounts to cover expenses not already covered by regular health insurance, such as co-payments, deductibles, laser eye surgery and dental work. Employees can set aside up to $5,000 in dependent care accounts for child care and elder care costs. Elder care includes nursing care for elderly parents who rely on the account holder.

Check out GovExec.com's Open Season Guide for more information on FEHBP and the flexible spending account benefit.