Federal Employees Lobby to Keep Older Kids on Insurance

Backed by Beltway-area Members, labor unions representing federal employees are pressing for temporary health insurance coverage for college-age students who will otherwise be thrown off their parents' health insurance plans when they turn 22 years old.

Although not required to cover such dependents until the fall, many private-sector companies and insurance carriers are allowing parents to keep their kids on their insurance plans. That's because, under the new Democratic health care reform law, providers by Sept. 23 are required to offer insurance coverage to dependents until they are 26 years old.

While companies can simply change their rules, executive branch and Congressional employees must wait for Members to make tweaks to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which now cuts adult children off on their 22nd birthday.

Along with Democratic Reps. Gerry Connolly (Va.), Jim Moran (Va.) and John Sarbanes (Md.), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) is sponsoring a bill that would fill the coverage gap.

"It doesn't make sense for the administrative burden to knock everybody off and go through the process of bringing everybody back on," said Van Hollen, whose Montgomery County district is home to thousands of federal and Congressional employees. "A lot of companies in the private sector are moving forward to this on a voluntary basis."

Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) has sponsored a similar bill in the Senate, which also has drawn other regional support from Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Mark Warner (Va.), Ted Kaufman (Del.) and Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.).

According to Van Hollen, the Congressional Budget Office has told him that the proposal would not add to the health care bill's already-steep $940 billion price tag.

"It costs virtually nothing," he said. "Why go through the process of having them all fall off their parents' insurance if they're all going to be coming back on in a period of four to five months?"

Pressuring OPM

Less than a week after President Barack Obama signed the health care bill, Van Hollen urged Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry to begin drafting new rules implementing the legal changes.

"Federal employees and their families deserve to be treated like all other Americans," Van Hollen wrote in a March 29 letter. "I believe that the provision extending young dependent coverage in the new law supersedes the current federal statute, and I hope OPM will issue formal regulations and guidance expeditiously as possible that will extend [Federal Employees Health Benefits Program] coverage to young dependents up to age 26 as stipulated in the new law."

The OPM, which oversees health care benefits for federal and Congressional employees, declined to comment for this article. Instead, an agency spokesman pointed to guidance on its website, which essentially said that its hands are tied.

"Though we are eager to provide coverage to young adults ... the current law governing the [Federal Employees Health Benefits Program] specifically prohibits us from doing so ... until the new law goes into effect, we must follow existing law," the website states. "We are working diligently with the Congress to address this matter and Congress has introduced legislation to address this issue."

Delivering the Message

With coverage for their members' families at stake, the National Association of Letter Carriers and the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association are lobbying extensively for Van Hollen's bill. Jim Sauber, a chief of staff with the letter carriers union, agrees that the administrative burden alone should persuade lawmakers to act.

"The reason private companies are doing it is that it's inefficient to kick them off and have to enroll them again," he said.

In a recent statement, NARFE President Margaret Baptiste also said the federal government should follow the private sector's lead.

"Today, dependent children of federal workers and annuitants lose their health coverage when they turn 22 years old, just when they graduate and begin looking for employment with health benefits in the current tough job market," Baptiste said. "FEHBP should start covering our kids now, just as other insurers have started doing in the private-sector."

And after enduring months of bashing by labor unions and Democrats, insurance companies are claiming the moral high ground in beating next fall's deadline.

Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, said his organization's members, some of whom administer federal benefits, are standing ready to carry dependent adults. They're just waiting on lawmakers to act.

"Our industry stepped up and said we're willing to provide young adults to stand on their parents' policies starting immediately, to provide greater continuity of care, so you don't have college students graduating and coming off their parents policies, only to jump on in a number of months," Zirkelbach said.

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