Senate Committee Oks Collins, Akaka Bill Giving Federal Workers Access to Comprehensive Dental and Vision Insurance

WASHINGTON, DC—The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee today unanimously approved bipartisan legislation (S. 2657) to provide federal employees with greater access to affordable dental and vision insurance. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) and Financial Management, the Budget, and International Security Subcommittee Ranking Member Daniel Akaka (D-HI) sponsored the legislation.

The Federal Employee Dental and Vision Benefits Enhancement Act of 2004 would establish a voluntary program under which federal employees and annuitants may purchase dental and vision insurance. Rather than requiring the development of a one-size-fits-all benefit, the legislation grants the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) the authority to select an appropriate combination of nationwide and regional companies and a variety of benefit packages to meet the diverse needs of the federal employee and annuitant population.

“The federal government’s most important asset is its human capital. The opportunity for employees to purchase enhanced dental and vision coverage will help the government stand on a more equal footing with other public and private employees that also seek to recruit and retain a highly qualified workforce,” said Senator Collins.

“Ultimately I would like to see an employer contribution for these supplemental dental and vision plans. The desire to provide an employer contribution must be weighed against the tremendous fiscal constraints facing the federal government. At this time, the appropriate balance leads us to a voluntary, employee-pay-all supplementary dental and vision benefit. However, our bill calls on Congress to study the options for, and feasibility of, providing an employer contribution,” said Senator Akaka.

The legislation has been endorsed by the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Treasury Employees Union, the National Association of Dental Plans (NADP), the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, the American Optometric Association, CompBenefits, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, AFL-CIO, and the Partnership for Public Service.

“Providing a voluntary stand-alone dental program to federal employees and retirees will not only provide a valued benefit, but will also serve to provide a benefit package that is more competitive with other governmental, commercial, and military offerings. Your bill offers that precise opportunity,” the NADP wrote in its endorsement letter.

“I am confident that federal employees will enjoy a huge benefit as a result of this bill. Both Senators Collins and Akaka are to be applauded for their efforts,” the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, AFL-CIO concurred.

The Senators pointed out that employees of 48 state governments currently have access to voluntary dental benefit plans. According to the 2003 Mercer Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans, 96 percent of employers with 500 or more employees provide dental insurance. In addition, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that for every dollar spent on dental disease prevention, $4 is saved in subsequent treatment costs.

“S. 2657 goes a long way to put the federal government on par with the private sector by ensuring that those who do our nation’s work receive access to affordable, comprehensive dental and vision benefits,” wrote the Partnership for Public Service.

“This legislation rightly recognizes that dental health is an essential part of general health and well-being,” wrote the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. “This important legislation will provide federal employees and annuitants with greater access to comprehensive dental insurance.”

Federal employees currently have access to medical coverage through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), but it provides reimbursement for only a small fraction of dental care. Under the Collins-Akaka legislation, medical carriers could continue to offer dental and vision coverage under FEHBP.

The legislation is designed to provide a dental and vision benefit patterned after the Federal Employees Long-Term Care Insurance Program, with the employees who choose to participate paying the premium costs. By leveraging the purchasing power of the federal government, OPM would have the ability to provide access to more affordable dental and vision coverage to employees and retirees than would be available to individuals purchasing this insurance on their own. Federal employees also would have the confidence that OPM has given its seal of approval to the benefit packages provided under the voluntary programs.

In addition, the legislation would require companies to provide coverage in under-served areas; require OPM to ensure that each contract is awarded on the basis of quality and price; and require OPM to provide employees with comprehensive, easy-to-understand information about each of the plans and choices.

OPM also would provide participants access to a process to appeal adverse benefit determinations. Premiums could be made through payroll or annuity deductions, direct payments to the participating companies, or both. The plans would be open to all federal civilian employees and annuitants, regardless of whether they currently participate in the FEHBP.