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Open Season Help, Bountiful Bonuses and More

A weekly roundup of pay and benefits news.

Open season for federal employees to make changes to their health insurance is under way, and this year’s promises to be extra busy because there’s a new option on the table: self-plus-one coverage. Employees who want to take advantage of that new offering, or make other changes, have been running into one problem, though, according to a Federal News Radio report. Extra cybersecurity precautions meant to protect workers’ personal information following the massive data breach revealed last spring have slowed down the online portal where many employees go to alter their Federal Employees Health Benefits Program elections and get their open season questions answered.

To address the delays, OPM decided to focus its attention on the Employee Express email help desk, rather than the phone-in line, officials told Federal News Radio. The email help desk can process about three times more queries than the phone line, OPM said. The agency has also added four extra help desk hours daily. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a quick answer to your questions: the average wait time for a response is 24 to 72 hours, according to the report.

Employee Express is managed by OPM and allows employees at participating agencies to make a range of pay and benefits transactions such as changes in tax withholding and direct deposit information. The Education, Interior, State and Transportation departments participate, as well as a number of smaller agencies. The Defense Department does not participate.

If you want to do your own research about the FEHBP offerings, this year’s edition of the Consumers’ Checkbook Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees and Annuitants is out. The guide rates all 252 plans available in 2016, taking into account different types of costs associated with each, as well as enrollee satisfaction. It also shows how much money participants can save by switching to a new plan (or sticking with their current selection).

The guide is available both in print and online; the price for the online version is $9.95 if you don’t subscribe to Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and $7.95 if you do. The book is $12.95 for non-subscribers and $9.95 for subscribers, with shipping costs included. Before you pay anything, though, be sure your agency does not already offer free access to the guide. Many do. Click here for a list of the agencies that subscribe.

You will have until Dec. 14 to make up your mind about any health plan changes you’d like to make, though OPM anticipates that a lot of people will miss the boat and later realize they would have been better served by switching to the new self-plus-one option. OPM is planning a “special enrollment period” in February as well to allow active enrollees to make that change.

In other pay and benefits news this week, the House has voted again to cap bonuses at the embattled Veterans Affairs Department. The new plan amends the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act to specifically limit bonuses for VA senior executives in 2016 to $2 million. The Choice Act contains an overall limit on bonuses departmentwide; awards are to be capped at $360 million in each of the fiscal years 2015 through 2024. 

The Senate has yet to pass language limiting VA senior executives’ 2016 performance awards, so it is unclear whether the latest effort to hold the department’s top managers more accountable for their job performance will succeed.

Meanwhile, last year was a good year for SES bonuses governmentwide. The percentage of career senior executives receiving a bonus based on their job performance increased by 12.2 percentage points between fiscal years 2013 and 2014, to 68.1 percent, according to statistics from the Office of Personnel Management. The amount of the bonus also went up, with the average individual performance award increasing by $347 from $10,213 in fiscal 2013 to $10,560 in fiscal 2014. Click here for more on last year’s bonuses.

(Image via   / Shutterstock.com)

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