The government is making a limited take-the-money-and-run offer to old-timers at the Public Health Service. Under an "early out" granted PHS, which is facing major program and job cuts, eligible employes will be able -- for a limited time this year -- to retire as early as age 43 and begin drawing immediate pensions.

When agencies are facing major cutbacks, reorganizations and/or RIFs (reductions in force) the government is allowed to ease the burden by offering what is known as an early out if the Office of Personnel Management approves it. In past years the early-out system was widely used (you could even say abused) as a management tool to clean out the bureaucratic version of gray-beards, and to create vacancies so that less senior workers would not have to be fired.

Top federal officials got carried away with the early-out program in the late 1970s, so Congress told OPM to put tighter controls on it, and be hard-nosed when agencies came hat in hand for early-out authority. OPM has been just that, but it has just okayed an early-out that could benefit thousands of senior PHS aides here and around the nation. This is how it works:

Employes can elect to retire before their time -- during the period when OPM grants an early out -- if they are at least age 50 with 20 years of service, or at any age with 25 years' service. That means that somebody who started with Uncle Sam (or with creditable military service) as a teen-ager could now, at age 43 or 44, be ready to retire. There is a stiff penalty (a 2 percent annuity reduction) for each year the employee is under age 50, but many find it worthwhile to leave and either enjoy an early retirement or find another job outside of government.

Normally federal workers who quit before the regular retirement age (it varies depending on their age when they joined government and how much time they have in) have to wait until they are in their 60s to begin drawing an annuity.

The new early out (time limits for it have yet to be announced) should ease things at the PHS, and make a lot of people happy.