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Feds’ health premiums to rise 3.5 percent

Increase is the lowest since 2008 and just half the 2011 jump of 7.2 percent.

The average amount federal employees pay for their health insurance plans will rise 3.5 percent in 2012, the Office of Personnel Management announced Tuesday.

The total average premium increase for nonpostal plans in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program will be 3.8 percent, or $15.33. Of that, government contributions will rise 4 percent, or $11.08 per pay period, while participants will pay 3.5 percent more, or $4.25 more per pay period.

The average nonpostal employee will see premiums rise by $2.33 per pay period, a jump of 3 percent for individual coverage, and by $6.18, or 3.7 percent for family coverage. For U.S. Postal Service workers, premiums will cost an extra $5.68 per pay period for individual coverage and $11.85 more per pay period for family plans -- amounting to an increase of 10.5 percent and 9.9 percent, respectively.

Individual participants in the Blue Cross Blue Shield Standard Option, the government's largest plan covering 44 percent of all enrollees, will see a slight premium decrease of 0.9 percent, or $1.76 less per pay period. Premiums for family plans will drop 0.4 percent, or $1.56.

The upcoming increase for the typical employee is less than the average 7.2 percent rise participants experienced in 2011, which officials attributed partly to added features such as tobacco cessation incentives, preventive screenings at no cost to enrollees and extended coverage to adult children age 26 or younger. Nearly 280,000 young adult beneficiaries have joined FEHBP as a result.

According to OPM, there will be no major changes to benefits offered through FEHBP in 2012. The agency asked providers to continue to focus on obesity prevention and efficient delivery networks as well as lower-cost pharmacy options. Numerous proposals have been put forth to allow OPM to streamline pharmacy benefit purchasing by negotiating directly on behalf of plan participants, but no regulations have been enacted.

Nine plans will offer affinity coverage for same-sex domestic partners of federal workers, officials said. While these options won't be part of FEHBP and could provide more limited benefits, domestic partners will be able to enroll on their own and pay all premium costs.

According to OPM, the smaller premium hike is due to lower utilization and costs over the last year rather than changes in the way the agency manages the program or benefits offered to enrollees. This is the lowest increase since 2008, when premiums rose 2.1 percent.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, expressed concern that any increase is too much, given federal employees will not receive a pay raise in 2012. "As federal employees begin the second year of a two-year pay freeze, this premium increase is one more economic challenge for the federal workforce," Kelley said.

FEHBP participants can choose from 206 plan options. No new plans have been added, but six will no longer be available after Dec. 31. Open season, during which federal workers can switch enrollments in health insurance plans, will begin Nov. 14 and run through Dec. 12.