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Key developments in the world of federal employee benefits: health, pay, and much more.

Open Season, VA Bonuses, Vets’ Benefits, Military Pay, and More

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It’s that time of year again: Federal employees and retirees can make changes to their health insurance coverage. Open Season for 2016 officially began on Nov. 9 and runs through Dec. 14.

Feds and retirees can choose or switch plans under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, as well as sign up for flexible spending accounts. In 2016, FEHBP enrollees will have a new self-plus-one option. In September of this year, the Office of Personnel Management announced that FEHBP beneficiaries would pay an average of 7.4 percent more toward their health insurance premiums in 2016. Click here for more information on Open Season.

Speaking of health care, a new survey of 800 veterans commissioned by the nonpartisan Vet Voice Foundation found that more than half of the respondents are happy with the performance of their local Veterans Affairs Department hospitals. “Notably, veterans soundly reject that VA hospitals in their area should be run like a for-profit private hospital,” concluded the survey, conducted in October by Democratic polling firm Lake Research Partners and Republican polling group Chesapeake Beach Consulting. “They do believe they need more doctors, and half say it takes too long [to receive care]. But veterans believe the VA hospitals care about them and have qualified doctors and nurses.”

Additionally, 56 percent of all respondents said they oppose privatization of VA hospitals and health care systems (68 percent of Democrats; 57 percent of Independents; and 48 percent of Republicans). “This is a voting issue,” said the poll, in which 35 percent of respondents identified as Republican; 25 percent identified as Democrat; and 34 percent called themselves Independent. “Regardless of age, party identification, or region, veterans are less likely to vote for a candidate for high-level elected office if they supported privatizing the VA.”

This week has been full of news about veterans because of Veterans Day. The White House touted several of its ongoing and new initiatives aimed at improving health care for vets, shrinking the disability compensation claims backlog, “ending” veteran homelessness, and ensuring vets get the most out of educational opportunities offered by the GI Bill. For example, the Obama administration announced it will roll out a “new and improved” GI Bill comparison tool, which “for the first time provides veteran-specific outcome measures on graduation and retention rates and provides veterans with the information they need to determine which schools and programs produce the best outcomes,” according to a fact sheet.

It’s not all great news for the Obama administration on vets, however. A Nov. 11 USA Today report found that the VA paid out more than $142 million in performance-based bonuses in 2014 to senior executives and other employees despite the department’s wide-ranging management problems.

“Among the recipients were claims processors in a Philadelphia benefits office that investigators dubbed the worst in the country last year,” the report said. “They received $300 to $900 each. Managers in Tomah, Wis., got $1,000 to $4,000, even though they oversaw the over-prescription of opiates to veterans – one of whom died.”

VA spokesman James Hutton noted in the story that no bonuses were given to senior executives at the Veterans Health Administration.

“The issues raised in your questions focus on challenges VA has faced in the past,” Hutton told the newspaper. “The department is working diligently to plan a foundation for the future that will modernize VA’s culture, processes, and capabilities to put the needs, expectations and interests of veterans and their families first.”

Moving to Congress, several veteran-related bills that are circulating range from increasing job opportunities to expanding benefits. Legislation pending in both chambers would require the VA to cover in vitro fertilization and other assisted reproductive technology procedures for injured veterans, spouses or partners, and surrogates, and expand these options for active-duty members enrolled in TRICARE. It also would give the department the authority to coordinate infertility counseling and treatment for the partners and surrogates of veterans who have difficulty fathering children because of a service-connected disability. Other measures would allow the VA to pay adoption costs for severely wounded vets and permanently extend existing pilot programs that provide child care for certain parents who use VA medical facilities.

Some more good news for vets: Disabled veterans hired as federal employees now have access to their full year’s sick leave immediately upon starting their jobs.

President Obama has signed into law the 2015 Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act, which gives 104 hours of sick leave up front to first-year feds with a military service-connected disability rating of at least 30 percent so they can attend medical appointments related to their disability. During their first year on the job, those vets would still accumulate their normal sick leave. The employees would only be able to use their extra sick leave for treatments directly related to their service and would not be able to carry over the one-time “wounded warrior leave” after their first 12 months on the job.

Prior to the legislation, full-time federal workers in their first year on the job did not have access to sick leave when they started, accruing four hours per pay period. That amounts to a balance of 104 hours of sick leave at the end of their first year. But disabled vets, who must attend regular medical appointments to maintain their health, and also to continue receiving their veterans’ benefits, quickly burn up their sick leave.

For troops and their families, it’s worth noting that the Senate this week passed the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill, which includes a 1.3 percent pay raise for service members and a major overhaul of the military retirement system. The legislation, which also includes money for basic housing allowances and other provisions affecting troops’ finances, is largely identical to the bill passed earlier by Congress and vetoed by President Obama in late October. Obama is expected to sign this version of the legislation.

(Image via Davide Trolli/Shutterstock.com)

Kellie Lunney covers federal pay and benefits issues, the budget process and financial management. After starting her career in journalism at Government Executive in 2000, she returned in 2008 after four years at sister publication National Journal writing profiles of influential Washingtonians. In 2006, she received a fellowship at the Ohio State University through the Kiplinger Public Affairs in Journalism program, where she worked on a project that looked at rebuilding affordable housing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, NPR and Feature Story News, where she participated in a weekly radio roundtable on the 2008 presidential campaign. In the late 1990s, she worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as a career employee. She is a graduate of Colgate University.

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