Democrats to shift civil service priorities

Federal Workers

November 17, 2006|By Melissa Harris

The Democrat-controlled Congress is expected to rein in efforts to shift government jobs to the private sector, enhance agency oversight and further stall controversial personnel reforms, as four members of Maryland's delegation take on key roles when it comes to issues that affect federal workers.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, incoming chairwoman of the Retirement Security and Aging subcommittee, yesterday wrote a letter to the director of the National Institutes of Health asking for a response to a Sun report that portions of a $250 million federal laboratory in Southeast Baltimore may be unusable because of vibrations in the building.

The senator's spokeswoman said yesterday that Mikulski also would push to even out the process that employees go through to save their jobs from being contracted out, listing this as her top civil service issue.

To win job competitions, private-sector bidders must demonstrate that their employees can do the job for 10 percent less money than government workers. Unions have alleged that those savings have often come from companies offering cheaper retirement and health benefits.

One proposal, which Mikulski and other Democrats have pushed into spending bills but have not succeeded in making permanent or governmentwide, would prevent companies from using inferior benefits to gain a competitive advantage.

"We don't have to have this battle annually," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat on the House's Federal Workforce subcommittee, said this week. "This is not going to be first thing out of the box, but we should have some success trying to deal with this in a permanent way. It doesn't make any sense to have a patchwork system that depends entirely on the whims of the appropriations subcommittees."

Federal workers also will see a longtime ally in the No. 2 post in the House after Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland won the race for majority leader yesterday.

Hoyer has tried to block efforts to reduce unions' collective bargaining rights, a keystone of President Bush's pay-for-performance programs at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings also serves on the Federal Workforce subcommittee with Van Hollen.

Along with contracting issues, Cummings listed whistleblower protections as a key item on his agenda. Congress will have to overturn or work around a U.S. Supreme Court decision this year that narrowed those rights.

"If we're going to root out a lot of waste and fraud, we've got to be able to give stronger protection to whistleblowers," he said.

Cummings added that he expects "cooperation" on some of these issues because so many committee members represent a large number of federal workers.

Health plans

Federal workers and retirees have new vision and dental plans to choose from during this year's open season, and, as is tradition, this column turns to expert Walton Francis to help participants pick the right plans for them.

Francis, a former policy director at the Department of Health and Human Services, is author of Checkbook's Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees.

Vision: This year, workers may choose from six nationwide vision plans. The plans cover an annual eye exam and a pair of glasses or contacts every year. Some plans cover disposable contacts.

"There's nothing special to these plans," Francis said. "They don't pay for any medical care. They're a way to get discounts on an annual pair of glasses. If you want sunglasses or two pairs in case you lose one, you have to wait until next year or pay out of your own pocket."

Vision benefits could pay off for a federal worker.

A single person in Spectera Standard, the cheapest vision plan, pays a premium of almost $70 a year. That premium is deducted from workers' (but not retirees') paychecks before taxes, so it's really about $50 a year. The plan covers a pair of frames up to $130. So, you could save $70 on $120 frames. The lens co-pay is $25.

"If you want to do that fine, but most of us would rather wander around on our own and not bother with it," Francis said.

Dental: The dental plan offerings are more complex, said Francis.

"What these plans don't do is help people with really high dental expenses," he said. "Six of the seven plans have a cap on how much they'll pay out per person."

Most caps are $1,200 a year.

In Maryland, workers can choose from seven options, and most annual premiums for a single person run between $300 and $400 year. All cover orthodontic work, but not until after a waiting period of a year or two.

"It's very important to know what plan your dentist is with," he said.

To order a book or access it online, go to www.checkbook.org. Rate comparisons also are available at www.opm.gov/insure.

The writer can be reached at 410-715-2885 or melissa. harris@baltsun.com. Previous columns can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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