In the ongoing attempts of Congress to find an alternative to the “public plan” in health reform, the Senate bill includes a provision to give the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which oversees the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program (FEHBP) a new role: sponsoring health plans to compete against private health plans in every state in the nation.

As Kay Cole James, a former director of OPM, points out in a recent op-ed, the FEHBP works because OPM plays the neutral role of an umpire: federal employees choose the private plan they like from a wide variety of different plans, all of which compete against each other to attract the most enrollees. The federal government provides its employees with a defined contribution towards their health costs, and it doesn’t micromanage their choices. OPM allows variety and flexibility in the program, and limits its regulatory role to ensuring consumer protections. Sen. Reid’s proposal would have OPM sponsor new multi-state plans. OPM would set the premiums for plans it sponsors.

This new role for OPM is the Senate alternative to the House passed “public option”. But ordinary Americans should be leery of the difference. According to Kay Cole James, “this arrangement seems to be a “public option” in “private” option disguise… Because OPM would not merely serve as the umpire overseeing competition among private health plans. It would also become a health-plan sponsor, fielding its own team of players to compete against the existing private plans in every state.”

Given this new role, OPM could engineer a crowd out other private insurers in the market. Furthermore, Section 1334 of the Senate health care bill allocates “such sums as may be necessary to carry out this section”. If the OPM-sponsored health plans were not profitable, it is thus conceivable that the taxpayer could end up footing the bill. This, along with the federal power to set rates and benefits, could easily end up as the public option that Senate liberals envisioned all along.

Says James, “OPM’s job is to serve the federal civilian work force and its retirees, while enforcing merit principles in hiring and stopping prohibited personnel practices. It’s not OPM’s job to compete against private health plans.” The best features of the FEHBP- broad consumer choice and intense Multi-plan competition, free of heavy regulation and massive bureaucracy, and governed by approximately 80 pages of statutory text- are worthy of replication. Giving OPM the power to sponsor “multi-state” health plans in competition against the private sector is not the same thing.