Abortion coverage as early as January is possible

Federal workers

April 07, 1993|By Carol Emert | Carol Emert,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- Participants in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan may receive coverage for abortions as early as next January if Congress approves a request by the Clinton administration.

Since 1983, Congress has forbidden FEHBP from offering coverage for any abortions except those necessary to save a mother's life. The administration plans to ask Congress to end this policy by deleting the relevant provision from the appropriations bill for the Treasury Department and U.S. Postal Service.

If the ban is lifted, insurance companies that participate in FEHBP would have the option of providing abortions, but it would not be mandatory. Some institutions, such as Catholic hospitals, that offer their own health plans, would refuse to offer abortions for religious reasons.

Whether Mr. Clinton can rally Congress around his proposal is uncertain. House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., said on a television news program yesterday that a vote "might be close in the House" because of the "very deep controversy" surrounding the abortion issue.

Bill Smith, of the Treasury appropriations subcommittee staff, agrees that it is impossible to predict Congress' response to the proposal. With 110 freshman in the House, "it's a whole new ball game" on Capitol Hill, he says.

Having the support of Mr. Clinton could be a determining factor, however, Mr. Smith says. Lawmakers did not make a strong attempt to eliminate the ban in previous years because of the likelihood of a veto by then-Presidents Reagan and Bush, he says.

The sooner Congress acts on the bill, the better are the chances of making abortion coverage available as early as the beginning of 1994, says Michael Orenstein, spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management. Participating insurance companies will finalize details of their 1994 plan offerings this summer, and FEHBP participants may switch carriers during "open season" in the fall.

OPM is exploring ways to allow carriers to add abortion services to their coverages if Congress lifts the ban after the companies have finalized their plan offerings, Mr. Orenstein says.

HONORARIA BAN -- Federal workers who moonlight as writers or lecturers should refrain from collecting fees for their work, despite last week's court ruling that lifted the ban on honoraria.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the statute forbidding federal workers from earning money for free-lance speaking and writing engagements violates their First Amendment rights.

But the ban will not be formally lifted until the government is given time to appeal, usually 45 days, according to information from the Office of Government Ethics. The administration is on record opposing the honoraria ban and is not expected to appeal.

Employees who have deposited free-lancing fees in escrow accounts also must wait for the court's approval before removing these funds, OGE director Stephen D. Potts says in a letter to agency ethics officials.

Mr. Potts recommends that agencies warn employees about remaining limits on free-lance assignments.

Despite the ruling, federal workers may not speak or write about topics closely related to their government work, and they may not speak before organizations that deal directly with their agency.

LOCALITY PAY -- Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th, says he is "optimistic" that federal employees in the rTC Baltimore-Washington area will receive locality pay raises on schedule next January.

The budget resolution passed by Congress last week allows House and Senate panels to institute locality pay if they can come up with offsetting cuts in their budgets.

Mr. Hoyer says the White House and Office of Management and Budget are working with advocates for federal workers in Congress to "come up with alternatives" to the administration's original plan, which would have postponed locality pay raises one year.

HEALTH PREMIUMS -- Congress has refused to back an administration proposal that was expected to cause a sharp increase in FEHBP premiums paid by federal workers.

In the budget resolution, Congress maintained its traditional formula for calculating health benefit premiums. The administration plan would have shifted $680 million in premium payments from the government to employees.

SURVIVOR ANNUITIES -- Congress last week approved the administration's proposal to reduce survivors' benefits by 10 percent.

The new policy will affect survivors of federal employees and retirees who die on or after Oct. 1.

Congress also agreed to eliminate survivor annuities for dependents 19 to 21 who are in school.

OPM HEAD -- James B. King is scheduled to be sworn in today as the new director of the Office of Personnel Management.

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