OPM Adds Tribal School Workers to FEHBP, and More
A weekly roundup of pay and benefits news.
The Office of Personnel Management last week issued regulations to extend access to the federal government’s health insurance program to employees of schools governed by Native American tribal governments and organizations, potentially adding more than 4,000 people and their families to the federal insurance rolls.
In 2012, OPM granted tribes and tribal organizations the ability to insure their employees through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, implementing a provision of the Affordable Care Act. But that access was not afforded to most tribally run schools until Congress amended the provision as part of the fiscal 2021 omnibus spending package signed into law last December.
In an interim final rule published to the Federal Register on Sept. 3, OPM granted 125 tribally controlled schools access to the FEHBP.
“Tribal employees . . . across the 125 [Tribally Controlled Schools Act] grant schools are now eligible for FEHB,” OPM wrote. “Section 1114 of the [fiscal 2021 spending law] is expected to make FEHB accessible to approximately 4,328 tribal employees of entitled [Tribally Controlled Schools Act] grant schools.”
The rule gives tribal schools the ability to “purchase” FEHBP insurance coverage for their employees, although it does not mandate that such schools switch to the federal government’s insurance program. OPM wrote that it does not expect the addition of tribal schools to the insurance rolls will make a significant impact on the program, given the relatively small number of newly eligible employees.
“[The] impact on carriers is relatively small, as tribal enrollments make up 0.78% of enrollments in the FEHB Program,” the agency wrote. “As of April 2021, the total tribal enrollment in the FEHB Program is 32,178 with a total of 64,208 covered lives. Overall, as of March 2021, there are over 4.1 million separate enrollments in the FEHB Program, providing health insurance to about 8.2 million federal employees, annuitants, certain tribal employees and their family members covered by the FEHB Program.”
Leave Options for Hurricane-Hit Feds
OPM last week highlighted multiple avenues by which federal employees impacted by the widespread storm and flood damage wrought by Hurricane Ida can qualify for paid leave.
Ida made landfall late last month along the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi, causing severe damage to homes and knocking out electrical and cellular grids. This was followed by widespread flooding along the Northeast corridor, particularly in New York and New Jersey.
OPM Director Kiran Ahuja issued guidance on Sept. 1 reminding agencies that they may offer weather and safety leave to employees if they were forced to evacuate from their home—which for many has doubled as their work site due to the COVID-19 pandemic—or if they lacked electricity or internet or cellular service due to the storm.
“Even if the individual is not prevented from safely traveling to and working at their approved telework site during severe weather and other emergency situations, OPM regulations allow for certain other exceptions that may warrant approval of weather and safety leave,” Ahuja wrote. “Agencies may provide weather and safety leave to a telework program participant if, in the agency’s judgment, the employee could not have reasonably anticipated the severe weather or emergency and thus is not prepared to telework. Additionally, agencies may provide weather and safety leave to a telework program participant if the employee is prepared to work at the telework site but is prevented from safely working there due to the severe weather or emergency situation.”
Ahuja also said agencies have the ability to authorize advance payments, continuation of pay, and payments for travel and expenses to employees who are ordered to evacuate to avoid being harmed due to an emergency.
And on Sept. 3, OPM authorized an emergency leave transfer program for federal workers in Louisiana, Mississippi, New York and New Jersey who were impacted by the storm. An emergency leave transfer program allows federal employees to donate unused annual leave to their colleagues so that they do not have to exhaust their own paid leave, or use unpaid leave, to recover from an emergency.
Under OPM’s authorization, each individual federal agency is responsible for determining the need for donated leave and setting up a system by which federal workers can transfer their leave to those who need time off to recover from the storm. Ahuja stressed the need for agencies to inform workers about the program quickly and clearly, since only certain types of leave can be retroactively substituted for donated leave.
“[Agencies must] educate affected employees that, dependent on agency policy, they may request advanced annual or sick leave, as appropriate or leave without pay, so that they are not forced to use accrued leave before donated annual leave becomes available,” Ahuja wrote. “This is necessary since donated annual leave may only be substituted retroactively for any period of leave without pay or advanced annual or sick leave used because of the emergency; it may not be retroactively substituted for accrued annual or sick leave used because of the emergency.”