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Lawmakers Look to Protect Vision, Dental Plans for Furloughed Feds, and More

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Virginia Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine (left) and Mark Warner are urging the OPM director to protect dental and vision benefits during the shutdown. Virginia Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine (left) and Mark Warner are urging the OPM director to protect dental and vision benefits during the shutdown. Jose Luis Magana/AP

A group of four senators asked the Office of Personnel Management on Wednesday to ease policies governing federal workers’ vision and dental insurance during a government shutdown, just days before they face the prospect of their coverage lapsing.

OPM guidance on employees’ pay and benefits during a shutdown states that while medical insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program continues during a lapse in appropriations and premiums will be deducted from feds’ first post-shutdown paycheck, the same is not true for enrollees in the Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program. Although FEDVIP coverage initially extends into a government shutdown, if an employee is furloughed for two consecutive pay periods, he or she will be billed via mail to maintain coverage.

With no end in sight for the partial government shutdown, employees of unfunded agencies are set to miss their second straight paycheck later this week.

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Senate Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia and Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland wrote a letter to OPM acting Director Margaret Weichert urging her to change this policy, citing the difficulty many federal employees already face trying to make ends meet during the partial government shutdown, which is now in its 33rd day.

“[OPM’s] guidance will require federal employees to tap into their savings and pay these costs or risk having their coverage terminated,” the senators wrote. “We are alarmed that unpaid federal employees will be required to incur this additional financial hardship during a time when they can least afford it. This is unacceptable.”

Although some companies that administer dental and vision benefits for federal workers have indicated they would allow people to continue their coverage without payment, the lawmakers said OPM must take an active role to ensure nobody loses coverage.

“We believe it is unreasonable to expect unpaid employees to take on this financial responsibility,” they wrote. “Instead, we ask that you immediately work with federal contractors administering these dental and vision benefits to develop alternative payment arrangements that ensure continuous coverage at no risk of terminated benefits.”

Weichert on Wednesday issued guidance to agencies on how to implement the recently signed Government Employee Fair Treatment Act, which guarantees back pay for furloughed federal workers once the government reopens.

In her memo, she confirmed that the bill authorizes back pay for furloughed federal employees for both the current partial government shutdown “and any future lapse.” She also confirmed that furloughed workers would receive their “standard rate of pay,” including basic pay and any regularly scheduled overtime or premium pay, although those who had already scheduled some form of unpaid leave will not receive pay for the days they were slated to miss.

“An employee may have scheduled leave without pay for an extended period or be in a suspension status,” Weichert wrote. “In effect, those already-in-place periods of nonpay status override the furlough status.”

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Erich Wagner is a staff correspondent covering pay, benefits and other federal workforce issues. He joined Government Executive in the spring of 2017 after extensive experience writing about state and local issues in Maryland and Virginia, most recently as editor-in-chief of the Alexandria Times. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland.

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