For Clinton's workplace ideal, watch federal offices

White House proposes federal benefits for mental illness similar to

If you can't bring change on a massive scale, try it on a small one.

That's the philosophy driving the White House as it seeks to upgrade benefits for federal workers - a mere 2 percent of the American labor force, but the only part under the direct control of President Clinton.

At times, the White House uses federal workers as a model for what it would like the US work force to look like. The latest example is mental-health coverage. Officials are expected to announce a plan Monday that would give federal workers the same kind of coverage for mental illness that they get for physical ailments.

"It's fair to say the president would like to do for all working people what he does for federal employees," says Robert Reich, labor secretary in Mr. Clinton's first term. But given a Republican-controlled Congress as well as other priorities, he's limited to his pod of 2.7 million workers as a kind of model for the nation.

Right now, that model shows federal employees enjoying greater benefits than their counterparts in the private sector - though they are paid less. (Compensation, however, is an issue that requires congressional approval, whereas benefits do not.)

According to a 1998 study by the Congressional Budget Office, the dollar value of benefits received by federal workers amounts to 26 to 50 percent of pay, depending on such factors as age, salary, and length of service.

That's more than at large, private-sector firms, where the value of benefits received amounts to 24 to 44 percent of pay. Federal workers, according to the study, make out better than the private sector in terms of vacation, holidays, disability, and retirement. But they lag in health and life insurance, the study shows.

The White House is now offering more life insurance choices for federal employees, while simultaneously working on health insurance.

An official in the White House office of personnel management called the mental-health plan "the logical next step," after the president last year granted federal employees, retirees, veterans, and Medicare and Medicaid recipients a "patients' bill of rights."

Those provisions included the right to seek emergency care, choose specialists, appeal coverage decisions, and maintain confidential medical records. Congress has yet to approve such "rights" to cover all Americans.

Under the new mental-health standards, to be announced at a conference hosted by Tipper Gore on Monday, private insurers serving federal workers could not set limits on hospital stays or outpatient visits that are more strict than for physical illness. The new policy would also ban co-payments for mental-health care that are more expensive than those for treating physical disease.

All these new standards aim to prevent insurers from side-stepping a 1996 law aimed at parity between mental and physical care.

While health-insurance experts call White House health-insurance measures an improvement, they characterize them as minor. "It's small change," says Paul Fronstin, a senior researcher at the Employee Benefits Institute in Washington.

Benefits analysts and labor economists are quick to point out that many of the "rights" the president packaged for federal workers last year already applied to them - that the issue was compliance, not a new initiative. The mental-health plan, they say, is more of a tweak to the 1996 law.

And while the White House may present these kinds of improvements as a boon to federal workers, the great irony - from the point of view of the federal labor force - is that the Clinton administration has been shrinking the federal government, which has 350,000 fewer workers.

One White House official expresses exasperation with the criticism. Health analysts blasted major health-care reform as too much. Now they complain that targeted reforms are too little. "If these are such small blips, why are businesses and insurers opposed to them?"

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