The sticker shock of this year’s federal employee health insurance premiums probably hasn’t worn off yet.
Government employees and retirees should expect to pay 8.7% more, on average, for insurance in 2023, the Federal Employees Health Benefits program said last month.
FEHB has been offered to federal employees, retirees and their families since the 60s and to date covers more than 8 million people as the nation’s largest employer-sponsored health insurance program worth tens of billions.
Every fall, the program sheds certain treatments, medicines and physicians while adding new ones. In some places, plans shrink while others grow. Enrollees are given a four-week window to evaluate whether these changes are important enough to make a change to their existing coverage.
In reality, few people do.
Little movement around open enrollment season
Last year, roughly 98% of enrollees left their health coverage unchanged. Only 0.6% of those that did make changes completely switched health insurance carriers during open season.
“There’s no way that there’s a 99% satisfaction rate in your health plan, and yet people aren’t [making changes],” said Kevin Moss of Consumers’ Checkbook in a phone interview with Federal Times. “There’s a lot of momentum in keeping what you have.”
With 271 health plan options for 2023 offered by the federal government, there’s an understandable aversion to comparison shopping for differences that might seem negligible or simply too numerous to understand.
And though decision-paralysis is a preexisting condition this time of year, options are your friend — and possibly your wallet’s saving grace, experts say.
“What’s important for people to know is that premium increase is not uniform,” said Moss. “So there are plans that decreased their premium. There are plans where the premiums stay the same.”
And, yes, there are plans that increased.
Because insurance is a for-sure expense, Moss and others said its worth revisiting your plan details each year to make sure they still cover your lifestyle. Taking the average increases at face value may overshoot — or worse, undershoot — exactly how much plan rates changed.
How plan rates will change this year
Consider: Of the 2022 plans that will be available again in 2023, 56 have premiums that decreased. Nine plans have premiums that stayed the same.
In terms of the widely reported average increase, 119 plans had increases that were below the average, while 78 had average increases at or above 8.7%.
On each end of the spectrum, one plan decreased by about 35% while another increased by almost 50%.
“In some cases, this is a large sum of money depending upon where the premium was to start with,” Moss said.
Moss cited a plan for Illinois residents that had a 34.2% premium increase. For a self-only enrollment, that would cost someone an extra $6,500 next year.
“Even if you’re not thinking that you want to switch, you have to know how your premiums change,” he said.
Beneficiaries who are satisfied with their rates and coverage or a loyalist to a carrier might be even less inclined to review their coverage during open season.
Two-thirds of all federal employees are in a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan. Standard and basic plans increased above the 8.7% average increase. But FEP Blue Focus only increased 2%.
“You may be happy with the customer service from Blue Cross as a carrier, but when when’s the last time you explored some other Blue Cross options?” Moss said, adding that reviewing your coverage is as much about uncovering red flags as it is about discovering favorable changes.
About 34% of FEHB carriers improved year-over-year in 2021 according to OPM’s plan performance assessment.
A common myth
Moss said some federal employees may be surprised to know that self-plus-one enrollment isn’t always cheaper than self-and-family. There are 86 FEHB plans where self-and-family enrollment is less expensive than self-plus-one.
Two-person families might find themselves getting a better deal under a family plan instead of the intuitive plus-one add on.
“Tens of thousands of enrollees are potentially leaving valuable savings on the table by not taking advantage of Open Season to review their health care coverage and ensure they are receiving the most out of their benefits for themselves and their family,” said Kiran Ahuja, OPM’s director in a statement on Oct. 4. “Ask yourself – how have my or my family needs changed this past year, and then utilize the Open Season enrollment period to conduct a wellness or financial check-up to make an informed decision that gets you the best care.”
For specific benefit plan changes, section two of the official FEHB plan brochure will highlight the differences.
“You’re gonna get pretty decent coverage in almost any of these plans,” Moss said. “But there’s value, right? That’s the big takeaway. There’s value here in the market.”
What to know ahead of open enrollment season
Open season for federal employees to re-enroll or change their health insurance for next year starts on Nov. 14 and goes through Dec. 12. With more than 200 plan options, OPM encourages enrollees to comparison shop.
Federal beneficiaries can find more open season information, including 2023 FEHB health plan comparison tools, on its website around the first week of November.
Last year, the average total premiums for non-Postal employees and annuitants in the FEHB Program increased 2.4 percent, the second lowest increase in more than two decades.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.