Survive Open Season and save a thousand bucks!

Wednesday - 11/20/2013, 2:00am EST

If you always buy the most expensive item, believing that if it costs more it must be better, save yourself some time. Skip this one.

But if you would like to save $1,000 to $2,000 next year in health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs, stick around — it should take you about three minutes and four seconds to read this. That is not a long time, unless you are underwater.

Once a year, from mid-November to early December, the federal government gives 8 million members of its family a chance to save — or blow — a lot of money on their health insurance for the coming year.

Health insurance premiums in the federal health plan (the FEHBP) are going up an "average" of 4.4 percent next year. White-collar federal workers are in line for a 1 percent raise (their first in years) to help pay for insurance. But averages are tricky. Some plans are going up a lot more than that, some less. A couple are even reducing premiums slightly.

Each year during the Open Season, despite all the time and money spent on advertising and educating people, most federal workers (and the vast majority of retirees) do nothing. They stay in the same plan year after year, even though doing a little shopping could save them a lot in premiums and out-of- pocket costs.

This year, dozens of federal agencies have subscribed to the online version of Consumers' Checkbook's Guide to 2014 Health Plans. Workers can shop (at the office) for the best plan for their situation.

Simple example: According to Checkbook's Walton Francis, moving from the Blue Cross standard option to the Blue Cross basic option would save an individual $690 in premiums next year. Those with family coverage could save $1,620 in premiums by going from the standard to the basic plan. What's the difference? In many cases, Francis says, the lower cost basic option is better. Who knew?

The good news about the FEHBP plans is that all of them are good-to- excellent, according to Checkbook. Some are better than others based on what you expect, want and can afford. Last week we listed the self-only coverage "best buys" among the national fee-for-service plans. If you are looking for family coverage you can just about double the premiums because the "best buys" are the same.

Managed-care HMOs, which many people prefer, represent a real bargain in many cases. And the co-payments and out-of-pocket costs are often less than fee-for-service plans. Those rated as "best buys" by Checkbook include Kaiser Standard, Coventry High option, Kaiser high option and CareFirst standard option. More on HMOs in a column to come.

Even plans rated at the bottom by Checkbook are still pretty good. And the premium differentials in many cases are not much. Some have better prescription drug coverage than others. Some have (slightly) better dental benefits. Some give you greater protection on out-of-pocket costs if you have a "catastrophic" illness or accident in 2014.

Over the remainder of the Open Season, we'll have a series of columns listing best buys, and what you should look for and what you should avoid. Plus, Walt Francis of Checkbook, and David Snell from the National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) Association will help us appear on our weekly Your Turn radio show.

Later in the show, Federal Times reporter Andy Medici talks about HealthCare.gov, IT procurement reform and a possible new home for the FBI headquarters.

Listen if you can (1500 AM or online), and if you have questions email them to me at mcausey@federalnewsradio.com or call in during the show at (202) 465-3080. The show will be archived here.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

Compiled by Jack Moore

The Oxford University Press has named "selfie" — the term for a self- portrait taken with a smartphone — as the "2013 Word of the Year."

"It seems like everyone who is anyone has posted a selfie somewhere on the Internet. If it is good enough for the Obamas or The Pope, then it is good enough for Word of the Year," the judges said. The first known usage of the term came in an Australian Internet forum in 2002.

(Source: Oxford University Press)


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