Lawmakers introduce protections for federal employee health benefits ahead of future shutdowns

Several members of Congress have called for an end to government shutdowns altogether, but lawmakers are still piecing together solutions to mitigate the impacts for federal employees if another lapse does happen.

A bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers have introduced two new bills that would ensure employees experience no interruptions in their federal health, dental, vision and long-term care insurance during any future government shutdown.

Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), along with Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Ranking Member Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) have introduced the bills in the House. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Mark Warner and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) have introduced similar companion bills in their chamber.

Reps. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), Don Young (R- Alaska) and Van Taylor (R-Texas) are also original co-sponsors of the legislation in the House.

“While we truly hope to avoid shutdowns in the future, the measures we are introducing… would ensure that federal employees could enroll their newborn babies in their health insurance plans and that they would not lose their dental, vision, or long-term care insurance if another funding lapse occurs,” the members said in a joint statement. “We owe it to our civil servants to mitigate the impact of funding lapses over which they have no control.”

The first bill, the Ensuring FEHBP Coverage During Shutdowns Act, would designate certain services under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) as “excepted” under the Antideficiency Act.

Specifically, the legislation would ensure that federal employees who experience a qualifying life event, such as the birth or adoption of a child, can immediately enroll their dependents into the FEHBP even during a government shutdown.

Some agencies weren’t able to process new dependents during the previous 35-day government shutdown because the employees who would otherwise enroll new dependents were, in some cases, furloughed. This bill explicitly designates employees who perform this work as “excepted” during future government shutdowns.

Office of Personnel Management guidance during the last government shutdown said there was no requirement for employees to be in “pay status” for a change in FEHB enrollment to take effect due to the birth or addition of a new child.

The second piece of legislation would ensure that coverage continues for furloughed and excepted employees enrolled in the Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program (FEDVIP) and the Federal Long-Term Care Insurance Program (FLTCIP) during future government shutdowns.

The Ensuring FEDVIP and FLTCIP Coverage During Shutdowns Act would combat a reality that furloughed and excepted employees nearly faced during the last lapse in appropriations.

In general, coverage under federal dental, vision and long-term care insurance plans will continue during government shutdowns, but if the lapse goes on for two consecutive pay periods, these programs would begin to directly bill their enrollees for missing premiums.

OPM extended the number of consecutive pay periods enrollees in FEDVIP would have to miss before they received bills for missing premiums from two to three during the most recent shutdown.

But this legislation would prevent those scenarios from happening altogether. The bill requires the OPM director to set new regulations describing how federal employees impacted by future government shutdowns could simply repay missed premiums through back pay.

Federal employees are guaranteed back pay during all future shutdowns through the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law back in January.

In addition, efforts to secure more financial flexibilities for participants in the Thrift Savings Plan haven’t died just yet in Congress.

The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (FRTIB) last month said it’s tracking five bills that would allow TSP participants to more easily take a hardship withdrawal during a future government shutdown without incurring the typical penalty.

Kim Weaver, the FRTIB’s director for external affairs, told TSP board members last month she’s still expecting one of these bills to move. The FRTIB has worked with congressional staffers to revise and tweak legislative language for many of them.

The general concept of allowing TSP participants to take hardship withdrawals during future shutdowns has bipartisan, bicameral support.

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