Millions of federal employees and their family members will be able to shop for health benefits beginning Monday.
Open enrollment, spanning for four weeks, could overlap with a government shutdown if Congress fails to extend the current continuing resolution or pass a spending package by next Friday. More than a month into fiscal 2024, the government is still operating on last year’s funding levels after Congress passed a last-minute stopgap bill on Sept. 30.
As the name implies, a shutdown means that many agency offices close and employees whose work is outside of national security, health and “life or death” services are sent home without pay. However, the office that oversees the Federal Employee Health Benefits program and open season is funded by a trust that does not rely on annual appropriations.
“There are sufficient amounts in these trust funds to operate them throughout the duration of any lapse in appropriations,” according to the White House’s Office of Personnel Management.
Thus, employees will be able to participate in open season in the event of a shutdown. And coverage will not lapse during this time either, either for medical or dental and vision.
“The employee’s FEHB coverage will continue even if an agency does not make the premium payments on time,” according to the agency’s shutdown guidance. “Following the lapse, each employee who returns to pay status will automatically begin to repay their share of FEHB premium that accumulated during the lapse through payroll withholding.”
These programs can continue while others do not because of a rule implemented in 2021, after the 34-day shutdown that began in 2018, that deemed the FEHB program and Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance as emergency services, meaning they do not fall under spending restrictions imposed by the Antideficiency Act.
The updated regulation also gives agencies the go-ahead to keep on employees to assist with open enrollment during a lapse in appropriations. That is also reflected in agencies’ shutdown contingency plans, including OPM’s for this year.
This year, open season will begin on Nov. 13 and close on Dec. 11. FEHB is the largest employer-sponsored health care program in the country, covering 9 million people including employees, annuitants and family members, as well as some former spouses.
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.