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Steps to Reform Health Benefits, Cut Retirement Pay, Count Calories and More

A weekly roundup of federal pay and benefits news.

It usually gives us pause when someone claims to be able to cut costs and improve service, but that’s exactly what two lawmakers—one Republican and one Democrat—say about reforming the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. And they have plenty of company in making those claims.

In a joint op-ed in The Hill newspaper, Reps. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., note that the program that serves 8 million federal workers, retirees and their families has remained largely unchanged since 1959—“before the invention of the hand-held calculator, personal computer and the Internet.”  Modernization, they argue, could save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and deliver more comprehensive health plans.

The law limits the types of health plans that the FEHBP can offer, which prevents workers and retirees from benefiting from innovations and health plan options that other large employers—including state and local governments—offer, they wrote:

The Congressional Budget Office recently found that on average, the cost of benefits, including health insurance, was 48 percent higher for federal civilian workers than for their private sector counterparts. Furthermore, a Health Affairs article found that in areas of the country where there was significant competition among health plans in FEHBP, premiums were more than 10 percent lower than where there was little competition.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has lamented “the competitive marketplace is not as robust as it should be” and warned that “the FEHBP lacks the flexibility to address these challenges and respond to the continuously changing market.” In a recent letter to Congress expressing support for action now, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta made clear that a legislative fix “will lead to lower premiums for Federal employees.” By allowing more choices for employees, the Congressional Budget Office has concluded that the FEHBP would save taxpayers $300 million over the next 10 years.

The lawmakers pledged to work together to reform the law and “bring the FEHBP into the 21st Century.” This is something both President Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, tried to do without success, so success is no assured thing.

While Ribble and Schrader are talking up ways to improve a key federal benefit, one of their colleagues is more concerned about cutting the costs of retirement pay. To do that, Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., introduced H.R. 1230, which would amend the federal employee pension system to base benefits on the highest five years of salary instead of the highest three years. Westerman's office said the bill was inspired by a proposal from the Congressional Budget Office, and the measure would save the government $3.1 billion over the next 10 years. It would go into effect Jan. 1, 2017, and apply to all civilian feds currently working at that time—including members of Congress and their staffs. 

Not surprisingly, American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. strongly opposes the bill:

Federal employees already have lost $159 billion in earnings due to pay freezes, pension cuts, and similar maneuvers that made them the scapegoat for an economic downturn they had no part in creating. Federal employees are working class people just like most other Americans, and singling them out for more pain and sacrifice is just plain wrong.

In other benefits news on the Hill, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and John Boozman, R-Ark., along with Rep. Mark Takano, D-Ca., introduced the GI Bill Fairness Act, which would guarantee wounded reservists’ eligibility for Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits.

According to the lawmakers, here’s the problem:

Members of the Guard or Reserve who are wounded in combat are often given orders under 10 USC 12301(h) for their recovery, treatment and rehabilitation. Unfortunately, federal law does not recognize such orders as eligible for Post-9/11 GI Bill education assistance, meaning that unlike other members of the military, these members of the Guard and Reserve actually lose benefits for being injured in the line of duty. The GI Bill Fairness Act would end that unequal treatment and ensure these service members are eligible for the same GI Bill benefits as active duty members of the military.

If you’re a service member worried about maintaining your weight during deployments, the Defense Department’s Human Performance Resource Center has a new tool for you. On Monday, the center launched the Combat Rations Database to help with battlefield meal planning. ComRaD allows you to weigh the tradeoffs between MREs, such as the ratatouille (1,454 calories) and the “pork patty, rib shaped, barbeque flavor” (1,303 calories). While the calorie counts are printed on the rations, the database contains more nutritional information about everything included in the packet. It also allows troops to do some advance planning before they get to the field and before temptation clouds their judgment. As anyone who’s ever been on a diet knows, it’s usually the little things that sabotage your plans.

Of course if you’ve spent the day battling insurgents or digging trenches you probably aren’t worried about calories. But if you’ve just been sitting around waiting—and there’s plenty of that, even in the field—you may want to skip the snack bread (204 calories), the peanut butter (266 calories) and the cookies (278 calories) with your next beef brisket MRE, and just stick with the brisket, garlic mashed potatoes and butter flavor granules (176, 119 and 7 calories, respectively).

Is your agency paying off your student loan? If so, the Office of Personnel Management wants to know. In a memo to chief human capital officers, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta ordered agencies to submit detailed reports describing student loan repayments by March 31.

“We invite you to share any additional information regarding best practices, lessons learned, program effectiveness, metrics used to measure program success, establishing a business case, program impediments, or other relevant details about your agency’s use of student loan repayments as a recruitment or retention tool,” she added. 

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