For thousands of federal employees, this year’s open season for benefits poses the same dilemma facing many other Americans: Sign up for health insurance or pay a fine, experts say.
The 2010 Affordable Care Act, widely known as “Obamacare,” requires individuals and their families to have medical coverage starting early next year unless otherwise exempted. Although the exact number of uninsured federal workers is uncertain, “there’s going to be a bunch,” said Walt Francis, author of the annual “Checkbook’s Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees.”
The American Federation of Government Employees, for example, has estimated that some 250,000 federal employees lack medical coverage because they can’t afford the premiums charged by the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP).
Francis and other experts consider that number high, but note that younger, healthier employees may be reluctant to buy insurance to avoid what they see as an unneeded expense. This year’s open season began Nov. 11 and will end Dec. 9.
Those who don’t get coverage by next year must cough up a penalty to be deducted from their 2015 tax refunds. While that sum — which will vary depending on income — could be less than the cost of an insurance premium, many federal workers may also be nervous about ending up on an IRS collection list, Francis said. The White House has indicated that consumers can wait until March 31 to enroll before facing fines.
“I don’t know how this will play out, but I think it’s very likely that some significant fraction will sign up,” Francis said. Although that will mean added expense to the government, which picks up about 70 percent of the bill, many of those new enrollees will be relatively healthy, thus putting downward pressure on premiums, Francis added.