TSP scores high, flexible spending low in latest federal employee benefits survey

By Dena Levitz
Federal News Radio

Federal employees have almost opposite opinions on the usefulness of the Thrift Savings Plan versus the flexible spending program and long-term care insurance available to them.

Newly released findings from the 2013 Federal Employee Benefits Survey show positive results across the board with regard to the TSP and dramatically low scores for the Federal Flexible Spending Account Program (FSAFEDS), as well as the Federal Long-Term Care Insurance Program (FLTCIP).

The Office of Personnel Management implemented the survey in 2004 to measure federal employees’ impressions of the various benefits afforded to them and to allow them to weigh in on which ones they use and don’t use. Since then, the survey has come out again in 2006 and 2011.

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To complete the newest version, OPM, during September, sent the survey to a random sample of about 39,000 full-time, permanent federal workers. By the next month’s deadline for results, 35 percent responded.

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‘Climbing in all categories’

For those who did, the TSP and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHB) stood out as the benefits programs with, by far, the most participation. About 94 percent of respondents said they had enrolled in TSP and 82 percent in FEHB.

David Snell, director of the Federal Benefits Services Department at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees association, called the FEHB the “jewel and the crown of federal benefits” and said he was not surprised it was popular.

“You’ve got a wonderful program out there that offers more selections, more options to meet peoples’ health needs and their pocket books,” he said. “For the price, the value that you get…is just outstanding.”

The TSP also fared especially well when OPM asked about the importance of each benefit program. More than 84 percent of respondents described the Thrift Savings Plan as “extremely important.” FEHB was cited as “extremely important” by 83 percent of those surveyed.

“TSP ratings have continued to climb in all categories since 2004, suggesting employees understand the financial benefit they receive by deferring money for retirement,” the OPM report detailing the survey states. “Agencies should continue to promote the benefits of enrolling and contributing to the TSP, as the results show that employees understand, appreciate and value the program as an important part of their federal employee benefits.”

Flexible spending and long-term care programs fail to satisfy

On the other hand, just 6.7 percent of respondents said they were enrolled in federal long-term care.

To this point, Snell said there are a lot of misconceptions about long-term care.

“It’s not just for people when they get elderly. It can also provide benefits for them when they’re younger and they have a major medical situation,” he said.

Flexible spending enrollment also was comparatively low, with 77 percent of federal employees surveyed indicating they did not enroll in FSAFEDS. The number one reason given was “I don’t feel as if it’s beneficial to me at this time” with number two being simply “I do not wish to participate.”

“The FLTCIP and FSAFEDS programs have struggled with ratings across all categories. The fact that reported enrollment is low and importance, value and adequacy scores have decreased over time presents an opportunity to increase education and communication about the benefits of each program,” the report states. “Educating employees on the financial benefits gained from enrolling in this program may help to increase enrollment and program ratings.”

It’s also important to look at the larger economic picture, Snell said. With the recession and fewer pay raises, it’s a question of where they want to spend their hard-earned pay. Often, more immediate needs take precedent over longer-range items.

In the survey, federal employees, additionally, scored the FEDVIP dental and vision insurance programs low in the category of perceived value. Just 12.5 percent of respondents rated the dental program as an excellent value for their money and 11.8 percent rated the vision program as an excellent value. Comparatively, almost half of respondents called the TSP an excellent value.

Snell said this doesn’t surprise him, because the dental and vision plans are a constant source of frustration voiced by NARFE members.

“While it’s nice to have that available as a kind of supplement to federal employees’ health benefits coverage, the benefits that are paid are not there to pay the entire bill,’ he said. “They’re only going to pay a little. I think there are folks getting into it thinking the benefits coverage will be greater than it is and then they’re disappointed.”

A smoking cessation program unknown to majority

As side components of the main survey, OPM also analyzed smoking by federal workers and asked them about health and wellness factors such as how much employees say they exercise regularly and how often they consult health labels on the food they eat.

Here, the most striking conclusion was how few federal workers know about a comprehensive smoking cessation program for which they’ve been eligible since 2011. The program grants them four free cessation counseling sessions and all Food and Drug Administration-approved medications.

Yet just 10 percent of those surveyed said they had ever heard of this.

The side report about smoking delves into the challenges of quantifying how many workers regularly light up. In the 2013 Federal Employee Benefits Survey, 11.6 percent self-reported as smokers. Using the results from the survey, it is estimated that the federal government is currently spending an excess of $1.24 billion annually on the active tobacco using population.

To Snell, the lack of awareness about the smoking cessation and other health and wellness programs demonstrates that agencies need to do a better job of promoting services.

“It’s up to the agencies to sell these programs to the employees, let them know they’re there, and give them guidance in order for them to take full advantage,” he said.

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