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Health Care Choices, Retirement Savings Safeguards, Faster Holiday Travel and More

A weekly roundup of pay and benefits news.

Open season officially started this week, giving federal workers an opportunity to rethink their health care and flexible spending account benefits.  For some, the choices may seem daunting. But for at least one group of employees, the options are underwhelming.  The advocacy group Human Rights Campaign on Monday noted that only three Federal Employees Health Benefits Program providers – AETNA, Kaiser Permanente and the Foreign Service Benefit Plan -- will offer transition related coverage for transgender feds.

HRC urged the Office of Personnel Management to go beyond its June notification to FEHBP carriers that such coverage was no longer banned. Providers should be required to offer it, the group said.   

“Transgender federal employees deserve full and equal benefits, and these changes in coverage are simply inadequate,” said David Stacy, government affairs director for HRC. “We are deeply disappointed in not only the scope of coverage, but also the number of providers who will be providing transition related care.”

Those federal employees who are lucky enough to have a range of FEHBP plans that do meet their health care needs might want to consider shopping around. As Retirement Planning columnist Tammy Flanagan noted last week, “open season can be an opportunity to put a little more cash in your pocket.” And with the incoming Republican-controlled Congress likely looking for ways to squeeze feds financially, extra cash couldn’t hurt.

Retirement benefits are one potential target of the new Congress. Lawmakers have already increased the amount recently-hired civil servants are required to contribute toward the Federal Employees Retirement System, but that doesn’t preclude another rate hike. Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Paul Ryan, R-Wis., recently sent a letter to the Congressional Budget Office asking for evaluations on a series of proposals to overhaul FERS, including “adjusting the retirement contributions of federal employees.” 

If you aren’t quite ready to fully retire but don’t want to sit around waiting for your benefits to be attacked, phased retirement might be an option for you soon. Our “Phased Retirement Watch” tracks which agencies are close to implementing the benefit.

Those ready to make a full exit might be able to do so without a major disruption in benefits.  While the backlog of retirement claims has barely moved in the past year, thanks to an influx in applications in October, processing times have gotten faster, OPM reported. Claims are now processed in an average of 35 days, rather than the previous norm of roughly 60 days.  

You can also leave knowing the savings you have already amassed in your Thrift Savings Plan are likely safe. TSP officials assured participants that the U.S. Postal Service’s recently revealed cyber intrusion “does not affect your Thrift Savings Plan account,” and pointed investors to the plan's security center for more information.

Two other bright spots in benefits news, are that the Veterans Affairs Department’s mail order pharmacy benefits ranked first on customer satisfaction on a J.D. Power study of such programs, for the fifth year running. Veterans are due for a more general improvement in customer service, as part of VA’s biggest ever reorganization, announced by Secretary Bob McDonald.

And, students of military academies might be able to get home a little faster for the holidays this year: The Transportation Security Administration announced that it is expanding its PreCheck expedited screening program to cadets and midshipmen from the U.S. Military Academy, Naval Academy, Coast Guard Academy and Air Force Academy. The benefit – which allows participants to skip cumbersome steps in the airport screening process, such as taking off their shoes and jackets, and taking laptops out of their cases -- will apply at 120 airports and for 11 major airlines.  

“Providing expedited screening while on travel is the least we can do for our military and service academies,” said TSA Administrator John Pistole, in a statement.

Defense Department civilians who follow an “opt-in” process online can also participate in PreCheck, and the benefit was extended to military members outside of the service academies last year. TSA estimated that 50,000 Defense employees benefit from expedited screening weekly. 

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