Health plans: The law of averages

Monday - 9/24/2012, 2:00am EDT



When shopping for your family's 2013 federal health plan, even as you enter year three of a pay freeze, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

  1. The average depth of the Ohio River (depending on which source you consult) ranges from 15 feet, as per Wikipedia, to as much as 27 feet, according to Yahoo! and Answer.com. Whatever.

    Whichever "average" you believe, don't try to wade from Indiana to Kentucky, especially with a brick-filled backpack. It won't work out.

  2. For many federal and postal workers and retirees, the P in FEHBP (Federal Employee Health Benefits Program) also stands for politics.
On September 6, this column's headline was, Health Premium Surprise, and reported despite skyrocketing medical inflation, there was a good chance the health premiums for feds, postals and retirees would be lower for 2013 than they were this year. On Thursday, the Office of Personnel Management announced that nonpostal premiums next year will be going up an average of 3.4 percent. This year the average increase was 3.8 percent.

The average increase in federal health premiums tends to be less in years divisible by four, when we hold our national elections. The FEHBP covers 8.2 million people and a lot of them live and vote in big electoral-vote states like California, New York, Texas and Illinois. Also in states that are up for grabs, according to many experts, but are must wins for whoever wants to win the presidency. They include Virginia, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, which all have large numbers of federal workers and retirees.

The averages are both useful and confusing. Mostly confusing because if you are like most feds you never change plans. The vast majority stay in the same plan year after year. So unless there is a dramatic increase in premiums, people — and especially retirees — stay put.

Knowing that the average premium is going up only 3.4 percent isn't worth much if your plan is going up 6 or 8 percent.

People should also be aware there are two averages. One is what the government (which picks up more than 70 percent of the total nonpostal premium) will pay. The other is how much your share of the premium is going up — or in some cases down. While the average FEHBP premium will go up 3.4 percent in January, the average increase for nonpostal feds and retirees will be 3.7 percent. Not a deal breaker, no sleight of hand. But worth knowing.

The Sept. 6 column generated lots of comments — 56 to be exact. These were from people who took the time and trouble to sound off. To see how politically supercharged the health premium issue is to some people, click here to check out the entire range of comments when you have time.

Then sound off on this one.

Meantime, to look at your health plan choices (and new premiums) for 2013 click here. The tables show new premiums for federal workers and retirees as well as for postal workers. They also show the changes for both fee-for-service (nationwide) plans as well as for local HMOs. The benefits open season will run from November 12 to December 10.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Jack Moore

Canned tuna took off in the United States in the early part of the last century because of — what else — El Niņo. According to Slate:

The California Fish Company, which popularized canned tuna in America, originally specialized in sardines. A change in the weather in 1903, however, pushed the tiny fish out of San Pedro Bay, forcing the company to experiment with substitutes like halibut and rock cod, eventually settling on albacore.


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