Health-benefit battle joinedHaving won their fight for...


Health-benefit battle joined

Having won their fight for a 4.1 percent pay raise last year, federal workers are now turning their attention to a new legislative battle: Better health benefits.

Union officials have lost no time blasting President Bush's 1992 budget for failing to change the federal employee health-care system, which they say is arcane and overpriced. Officials applauded the pay raise, but they said the budget still shortchanges federal employees.

"The system has to be reformed," said Robert Tobias, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "And we can't have reform unless the government is willing to pay a little bit more."

Private sector employers now pay an average of $1,100 more for each worker in benefits each year than does the federal government, according to the NTEU. The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program also charges unacceptably high premiums for workers with more than basic health-care needs, the union says.

The program's fundamental flaw, say federal workers, is that it offers a confusing array of hundreds of options and divides employees into different categories based on age, marital status and other factors. A simpler, more cost-efficient system would offer a core plan to all workers at a lower rate, they argue.

Masking the budget deficit:

A House subcommittee is to debate next week whether the administrative costs of the Social Security system should be removed from the federal budget.

Though the bulk of Social Security expenses, including the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance fund and the Disability

Insurance fund, were removed from the federal last year, the program's administrative expenses mysteriously remained on budget.

Because these expenses remain subject to broad general budget cuts, Health Department officials fear that the Social Security Administration may not have the money to do its job this year.

Several members of Congress, including Maryland Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, have written budget officials to complain.

"To keep the federal budget process consistent and honest, all disbursements from the Social Security trust fund should be off budget," Cardin wrote in a letter to Budget Director Richard G. Darman last month. "The American people and Congress have made very clear that this is what they want."

It has been three years since the Social Security Administration closed its Dunbar office in East Baltimore, but Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., is still upset about it.

Sarbanes recently reintroduced legislation that would establish strict procedures for SSA to follow when closing or moving offices. Too often, Sarbanes told colleagues on the Senate floor last month, the administration closes offices in the low-income areas, where they are most needed.

Sarbanes noted that the Dunbar office, which was opened in the late 1960s, had become "the focal point" of community services in the region and received many referrals from state and local agencies. When the office was closed in 1987, many of the area's elderly and disabled residents found it impossible to travel across town to other offices, Sarbanes said.

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