Bill on retiree health insurance premiums could stall again

By David McGlinchey

On Tuesday, retired federal workers cheered as two senior lawmakers announced legislation that would allow retirees to pay their health insurance premiums with pre-tax dollars - a move that could save the average participant more than $400 each year.

On Thursday, it appears that their enthusiasm might have been premature.

The legislation, known as premium conversion, moved quickly in 2004 through the House Government Reform Committee but stalled in the House Ways and Means Committee. During a press conference on Tuesday,

Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., noted that the bill faltered despite the fact that it had 342 co-sponsors in the House and 57 co-sponsors in the Senate.

Davis joined Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and members of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees to announce H.R. 994 and promise to work tirelessly on its behalf. Despite the enthusiasm of Davis and Warner, it appears the legislation could grind to a halt in Ways and Means again in 2005.

"Right now, the committee is focused on the president's top two domestic priorities, strengthening Social Security and improving the tax code," said Ways and Means Committee spokeswoman Christine Baker.

She said there is no indication H.R. 994 will be singled out for special attention.

"We get something close to 2,000 bills referred to our committee each year, but right now we are focused on those presidential priorities," Baker said.

In another sign that Tuesday's momentum might have dried up, a Republican congressman - who Davis described as the bill's "champion" on the Ways and Means Committee - was noncommittal on the fate of the legislation. Davis told the NARFE members that Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., will fight for H.R. 994 on the funding panel.

An official in Cantor's office said the congressman is a co-sponsor of the legislation but cannot guarantee its success.

"He has been a co-sponsor of this; he has been a supporter of it," said Geoff Embler, a spokesman from Cantor's office. "But it is too early to determine what approach to take. The chairman [Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif.] dictates what is considered and when."

A Democratic staff member on the Ways and Means Committee said that ranking member Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., supports the legislation. She cited another section of the bill that allows military personnel to make a tax deduction when they pay supplemental health care premiums and said that Rangel - a veteran of the Korean War - is enthusiastic about supporting military benefits.

"He believes people who risked their lives for the country deserve our support," the staff member said. She said Rangel also supports premium conversion for federal retirees, but she was skeptical on the legislation's chances.

"I can assure you that we didn't stand in the way of it [last year]," the staff member said.

"The unfortunate thing is, being in the minority, we can't make things happen, and we can't stop things from happening."