ARLINGTON, Va. — The bad news: Health insurance premiums for federal civilians are going up, again. The good news? The average increase will be 10.6 percent, lower than increases to be felt in the nongovernment workforce, officials said.

In addition to the rate increase, the fourth year in a row in which health insurance premium increases have been in the double digits, the Office of Personnel Management has expanded the number of benefit programs from which subscribers of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program can choose, including 11 new fee-for-service choices available worldwide.

“Even with nationwide reports citing health insurance premium increases ranging as high as 18 percent, OPM has been able to keep its average premium increase at 10.6 percent, making many choices in the consumer and market-driven FEHB among the most reasonably priced in the nation,” OPM Director Kay Coles James said in a statement.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of employers found that the average premium increases for workers in the United States was 13.9 percent from Spring 2002 to Spring 2003.

For the first time in five years, the 8.3 million employees, retirees and their families enrolled in FEHB will have more plan choices, said Mike Orenstein, an OPM spokesman.

“With open season, people can shop around for the best buy … and review the coverage offered by their current plan and compare it to others and see if they are getting the best bang for their health care dollars,” Orenstein said.

This year’s open season runs from Nov. 8 to Dec. 10, and enrollees will be able to pick from 205 plan choices, an increase from 188 this year.

The rate increases go into effect in January, and affect overseas as well as stateside enrollees, said Abby Block, deputy associate director for employee and family support policy for OPM. The increase for those who have self-only coverage will be $5 more every two weeks; for those with family plans, $11.95.

The rate increases are linked to the rise of prescription drug costs and an aging workforce that is seeking more medical care.

Two new plans offered by Humana and Aetna could let enrollees lower some of their out-of-pocket expenses. Under the plans, employers contribute pre-set funds to programs and use that amount to pay for initial health care costs.

“They’ll use that money to pay for medical expenses before spending a single dollar of their own,” Orenstein said of enrollees. Once that money is used up, the enrollee then is responsible for co-payments and fees.

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