The lull before Thanksgiving

Monday - 11/21/2011, 2:02am EST

For a variety of reasons, the average federal worker will probably spend more time calculating how much weight he or she will gain this week than in picking the health plan that will cover his or her family for 2012.

The health plan choice isn't a problem for more than half of all working Americans who either don't have an employer-backed plan or whose choices are limited to a couple of take-it-or-leave it options.

For some feds, the annual health insurance open season — it runs until Dec. 12 — is no big deal. They do nothing and stay in the health plan they were in this year, last year and every year since they joined the government. For others, people with major health problems, those taking lots of prescription drugs, people with kids with special needs or natural worriers, open season is a nightmare. They want to save money, want to be sure their doctor accepts their plan and want the peace of mind that comes with a health plan that will pick up most of the tab is they have catastrophic medical bills in 2012.

The good news is that all of the health plans participating in the FEHBP (federal employee health benefits program) are good. They provide similar coverage, are open to everyone (with a few exceptions) and can't turn you down for any reason. The government will pay about 70 percent of the premium — more if you work for the U.S. Postal Service — and you can switch plans anytime if your marital status changes (married, divorced or widowed) or if you are in an HMO and move out of its coverage area. If you've been in the FEHBP (any plan) for five years prior to retirement you can keep coverage for life. At the same premium rate and with the same benefits as young, healthy workers. Your spouse can also be covered in retirement if you provide him or her with a survivor annuity benefit. If you die in service they can also be covered provided you have family coverage at the time of your death.

For the majority of feds and retirees — people who never change — the open season is over before it starts.

For an increasing number of feds and retirees, the various options available to workers and retirees make shopping a must. Experts on the FEHBP say there are deals where healthy feds can actually make money (in the form of a health savings account) from selected health plans.

Walton Francis, who writes Checkbook's Guide to Federal Health Plans says all of the health plans are good. He cautions that in a few the premiums are too high for what you are likely to get back. And he says you must check the catastrophic coverage (the amount you will have to pay out of pocket before the health plan takes over) limit.

Because this is short (three-day) week for many feds, we're going to begin saturation coverage of the open season starting next Monday. We'll have a series of columns listing best buys for singles, couples, large families, retirees with and without Medicare and for people with special needs. Meantime, Walt Francis will be our guest this coming Wednesday on our Your Turn radio show.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Jolie Lee

Why don't leftovers taste as good as the initial meal? Gizmodo explains the science behind the taste: Food is in a constant state of change. For example, when meat is cooked, proteins are relaxed and iron released. "When lipids interact with the released iron ... the taste turns cardboard-y."

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