Experts urge federal employees to consider switching health plans

As the end of open season for changing health insurance elections draws near, the refrain among health care specialists boils down to: Look into changing your plan now, before it's too late.

"If you don't think about the possibility of a switch, you miss out on the savings," said Walton Francis, author of Consumers' Checkbook Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees. Francis said that every year, his biggest hurdle in advising federal workers on their health insurance is simply getting them to consider switching plans.

The culture of complacency among federal employees can lead to unintended consequences when personal health situations change, according to Francis. "Suppose your health plan no longer covers the treatment you know you're going to need next year. You really don't want to be in that situation," he said.

Finding a cost-effective health plan also could take on a new urgency for feds entering the second of a two-year pay freeze, which some Republicans want to extend.

Other policy experts echoed Francis' advice about shopping around.

"Federal employees and retirees should absolutely think it through every single year," said Joseph Antos, a health care and retirement policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Antos also is a commissioner of the Maryland Health Services Cost Review Commission and a health adviser to the Congressional Budget Office, and is himself a member of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

"Just because they felt satisfied with their plan this year doesn't mean that there won't be some changes that wouldn't matter to them a great deal next year," Antos added.

Francis and Antos also stressed that federal employees, particularly younger ones, should look into health savings accounts. Every federal employee is eligible for such accounts, which offer significant tax advantages for healthy employees with lower incomes. But only 20 percent actually have them, according to Francis.

"Immortal twentysomethings, newly hired, they figure they don't need health insurance," Francis said. He and Antos recommended they instead consider HSAs.

Though some government employees have expressed concern over how the 2010 Affordable Care Act will affect federal health benefits, Antos dispelled such worries.

"Essentially the health reform [law] really doesn't come into effect in any substantial way [for federal health plans] until 2014," Antos said, adding that he didn't expect significant changes then, either. He also noted that the act would have little effect on private insurers and said it's a myth that "somehow the Affordable Care Act has already fundamentally changed the program in an adverse way. It hasn't."

There are 10 days left in the FEHBP open season, and five remaining for Medicare open season.

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