WASHINGTON — Retirees could gain relief from Medicare late fees
WASHINGTON -- A huge health-care bill moving through Congress contains a small section that could ease the cost of health care for up to 80,000 federal retirees.
Last week, the House Ways and Means subcommittee on health agreed to include in the bill a limit on the penalties assessed on certain federal retirees who purchase Medicare Part B after the initial enrollment period has expired.
The limit would apply only to retirees who delayed enrollment because they were covered by a federal plan that offered similar benefits, and those benefits were later withdrawn. The penalty limit would not apply to other federal retirees or non-federal retirees.
"Most of the people who are not signed up for Part B [neglected to do so] because they had the coverage from some other arrangement," said Maryland Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, a member of the subcommittee. "Through no fault of their own, they need to enroll in Part B. It would not be fair to charge them a penalty."
Medicare Part B covers up to 80 percent of the cost of a number of services. These include doctor visits, hospital out-patient services and some types of physical therapy.
Premiums for Part B cost $31.80 a month. The penalty for late enrollment is 10 percent of the premium cost for every year the retiree delays enrollment.
For example, a 75-year-old retiree who failed to sign up for Part B when she turned 65 would pay $31.80 a month in late fees alone.
The limit would particularly benefit former letter carriers and others covered under the National Association of Letter Carriers health care plan. The Office of Personnel Management told the ** NALC in March 1991 it must end supplemental coverage that was similar to Part B. Penalty assessments are to begin this month.
The pending health-care bill would cap the penalty fee, probably at 25 percent to 100 percent.
Groups representing federal retirees say the late fee problem, both for those who had been covered under another plan and those who had not, has been growing in the past several years.
"We get a lot of constituency calls on it and it just seems to be a problem in general" in the past two or three years, said Laura Sheets, legislative representative on health care for the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.
The penalty limit in the bill is not as sweeping as first proposed. Originally, the fee would have been completely waived, at a cost of $190 billion over five years. The cost of the pending plan is impossible to estimate until the limit is set, a congressional staffer said.
The Federal Employee Fairness Act, which would take responsibility for processing discrimination claims away from agencies and give it to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, moved closer to approval last week as the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee wrapped up its work on the bill.
The House Government Operations Committee is expected to schedule hearings on the bill in the next two weeks, said an aide to Rep. Matthew Martinez, D-Calif., who introduced the bill. Hearings also are expected soon on a companion bill in the Senate introduced by Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio.
The bill has a good deal of support among federal workers and labor advocates, but is opposed by many government managers because it would take away some of their power and give it to the EEOC, the aide said.
Also, under current regulations, an agency is not required to take any action even if there is a finding of discrimination. In the proposed system, the claimant has an opportunity to take the case to civil court, where the agency would be bound by the judge's decision.
The Federal Employee Fairness Act and similar reform bills have been in the legislative pipeline in the past, but have never made it to the floor of the House or Senate. A Martinez staffer said the bill has enough support now that it should at least make it to the floor.
"I think Anita Hill's testimony [clarified] what really is needed here," said the aide. "She was an EEOC employee and a lawyer and she opted not to pursue her case" using the current system.
Ms. Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor, testified at the confirmation hearing last year of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas that she had been sexually harassed by him, then chairman of the EEOC.