The 9 million people in the government's in-house health insurance program -- which will offer higher rates and reduced benefits in many of its plans -- will have an "open season" in December to hunt up a health package that offers them the best coverage for the lowest premiums in 1982.

Federal officials say the "open season" originally due to start in early November will now be held in December. Brochures explaining 1982 premiums and benefits are to be delivered to the printers next week. Officials hope the brochures will be in the hands of workers before or by December so workers can chart their 1982 health insurance course.

Two major items have held up the open season. One is whether Uncle Sam will continue to pay for abortions. The second is the status of the American Postal Workers Union plan, one of the biggest in the program which has more than 100 insurance carriers.

Office of Personnel Management last month announced it would not certify any 1982 plan that offers abortion coverage. Last year, OPM says, the government paid all or part of the $9 million cost for 17,000 abortions for government workers or family members. Several plans balked at the benefit cutback -- which OPM says is being made for financial reasons. One plan, offered by the American Federation of Government Employees, has been battling OPM in court. If AFGE wins -- and is allowed to keep abortion coverage -- the government says it will appeal. If the government wins, AFGE will appeal. All this will take time, adding to the confusion.

Another reason for the delayed open season is a bitter fight between the OPM and the American Postal Workers Union health plan. APWU is one of the Big-6 carriers (the others are Blue Cross-Blue Shield, Aetna, Kaiser North and Kaiser South of California and the National Association of Letter Carriers). The government pays 60 percent of the health insurance premium -- based on the "average" of the Big-6 premiums -- for most workers. U.S. Postal Service pays more for its employes.

OPM says the premium increases tentatively proposed by APWU for next year would raise the Big-6 average, and drive government costs up substantially.

OPM wants the APWU plan out of the Big-6 calculations, and another union plan used to determine the government contribution. Unless Congress (and legislation would be required) takes APWU out of the Big-6 carrier calculation formula, or APWU can reduce its planned 1982 premium increases, OPM says it will not certify APWU for the 1982 program.

All of the above may or may not be fascinating to the typical fed. What it doesn't do is tell people the basics -- how much they will be paying next year, what they will get for it, and how they go about it. Premiums now range from $200 to $800 per year per employe. The new rates-benefits will be out shortly, and in most cases people won't like what they see. This year it will definitely pay to shop.