The "Snowquester" fell on Washington Wednesday.

The "Snowquester" fell on Washington Wednesday. Flickr user taedc

Between the Pay Freeze and Snowquester, It’s Cold in Washington

Furloughs and an extended pay freeze await federal employees in 2013.

Mother Nature tricked Washington again. As of midafternoon on Wednesday, a much-anticipated late winter snowstorm had largely bypassed the District, despite shutting down the government in the region for the day. Fortunately, we can always count on Congress for drama when the weather fails to deliver.

The big news this week? While sequestration looks like it’s here to stay, at least there (probably) won’t be a man-made government shutdown at the end of the month.

The House voted on Wednesday to keep the government running through Sept. 30 and uphold the sequester with some flexibility for the Pentagon, Veterans Affairs Department and other programs. But, unfortunately for federal employees, lawmakers also included a provision in the continuing resolution that extends the current civilian pay freeze through 2013. Lawmakers froze their own pay too, but it’s cold comfort at this point to most feds.

The continuing resolution in its current form likely will become law, despite the White House’s objection to maintaining the sequester with most agencies remaining at fiscal 2012 spending levels. Then again, President Obama said that if policymakers hewed to the spending levels outlined in the 2011 Budget Control Act, he would sign a bill funding agencies that reflected that law. “I think it’s fair to say that I made a deal for a certain budget, certain numbers,” Obama said during a briefing with reporters on March 1, the day the sequester went into effect. “There’s no reason why that deal needs to be reopened. It was a deal that Speaker [John] Boehner made as well, and all the leadership made.”

In other words, everyone agrees that a government shutdown in the middle of the sequester would be a total disaster.

So, what’s the forecast for federal employees’ pay and benefits? Well, feds likely will have to forego a cost-of-living pay increase for a third year, most will be on unpaid leave for some length of time between now and September, and most awards and bonuses will be canceled indefinitely under sequestration.

On the bright side, health and retirement benefits are protected. In last week’s column, I talked about how furloughs could affect pay and benefits. Again, I urge everyone to check out the Office of Personnel Management’s guidance on administrative furloughs. Also check out Tammy Flanagan’s Feb. 22 “Retirement Planning” column on this topic.

FEHBP and Autism

Washington-area lawmakers are calling on OPM to ensure providers with the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program cover a popular therapy for children with disorders on the autism spectrum.

OPM in 2012 decided to allow, but not require, FEHBP plans to cover applied behavior analysis, a therapy frequently used to help children with autism-related disorders. ABA, as it’s known, is an intervention that helps increase an autistic child’s I.Q., language abilities and coping skills. According to Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization, FEHBP will have 67 plans in 22 states with some form of coverage of ABA treatments. Many areas with a large federal government presence, including Washington, Maryland and Northern Virginia, do not have access to such coverage, however.

“We applaud the decision to reclassify ABA as a medical therapy covered under FEHBP,” the Washington area Republicans and Democrats said a March 5 letter to OPM Director John Berry. “At the same time, we are disappointed that families in many areas around the country, including our own, are not benefiting from this decision. All federal workers, not just a fortunate few, should have plans that cover ABA.”

The lawmakers urged OPM to work with local FEHBP insurance providers to include ABA coverage in 2014 plans.

A new law that goes into effect in April creates a one-year pilot program extending ABA care to all military families under TRICARE. Before the change, only active-duty members were eligible for ABA coverage.

(Image via Flickr user taedc)