Federal Employees' Health Plans:

Premium Growth and OPM's Role in Negotiating Benefits

GAO-03-236: Published: Dec 31, 2002. Publicly Released: Jan 31, 2003.

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Kathryn G. Allen
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Federal employees' health insurance premiums have increased at double-digit rates for 3 consecutive years. GAO was asked to examine how the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program's (FEHBP) premium trends compared to those of other large purchasers of employer-sponsored health insurance, factors contributing to FEHBP's premium growth, and steps the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) takes to help contain premium increases compared to those of other large purchasers. GAO compared FEHBP to the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS), General Motors, and a large private-employer purchasing coalition in California as well as data from employee benefit surveys.

FEHBP's premium trends from 1991 to 2002 were generally in line with other large purchasers--increasing on average about 6 percent annually. OPM announced that average FEHBP premiums would increase about 11 percent in 2003, 2 percentage points less than in 2002 and less than some other large purchasers are expecting. FEHBP enrollees would likely have paid even higher premiums in recent years if not for modest benefits reductions and enrollees who shifted to less expensive plans. Increasing premiums are related to the plans' higher claims expenditures. For FEHBP's three largest plans, about 70 percent of increased claims expenditures from 1998 to 2000 was due to prescription drugs and hospital outpatient care. Most of the increase in drug expenditures was due to higher plan payments per drug, while the increase in hospital outpatient care expenditures was due to higher utilization. OPM relies on enrollee choice, competition among plans, and annual negotiations with participating plans to moderate premium increases. Whereas some large purchasers require plans to offer standardized benefit packages and reject bids from plans not offering satisfactory premiums, OPM contracts with all plans willing to meet minimum standards and allows plans to vary benefits, maximizing enrollees' choices. Each year, OPM suggests cost containment strategies for plans to consider and relies on participating plans to propose benefits and premiums that will be competitive with other participating plans. OPM generally concurred with our findings.

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