Federal Eye: Eye Opener: Unions oppose OPM health-care role

Happy Friday! Two leading federal workers unions want lawmakers to keep their hands off the program that provides health-care coverage to federal employees, arguing that any potential merger with a larger public health care program would jeopardize health coverage for federal workers.

Senate Democrats may soon strike a deal to create a program establishing several national insurance policies administered by private companies but negotiated by the Office of Personnel Management. If private firms were unable to deliver acceptable national policies, a government plan would be created.

“OPM’s role as the government’s HR office is too important to dilute with the massive undertaking of creating and administering a new health care system for millions of Americans,” said Margaret L. Baptiste, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE). “While NARFE supports access to comprehensive health care for all Americans, we are concerned that an OPM-administered health care system is being proposed as a political solution to a legitimate national problem.”

Baptiste suggested a program modeled on FEHBP should instead be operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, since “one of their fundamental responsibilities is to administer large health care systems for diverse communities of coverage.”

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), expressed similar concerns, telling lawmakers in a letter that her union supports “the continued integrity of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP).”

“Any merging — or opening up — of FEHBP now or in the future to additional groups of enrollees would amount to one employer-sponsored plan essentially subsidizing other groups of employees,” Kelley said. “NTEU would oppose opening up FEHBP to additional groups without separate risk pools.”

Kelley’s concerns are unfounded, since the current proposals would create a separate program for eligible Americans while FEHBP would continue in its current form. Baptiste however raises stronger, legitimate concerns about expanding the size and scope of OPM beyond its capacity to effectively focus on federal employment matters.

The two unions could apply little effective political pressure on lawmakers, since the only politicians they could legitimately pressure are in federal worker-rich Maryland, Virginia and D.C. The Democratic senators and representatives from those are all mostly reliable votes in favor of health-care reform.

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