Federal workers and retirees who had planned to begin looking this week for the best 1982 health insurance deal are now locked into their current health plan -- even though many will raise rates and cut benefits in January -- until at least Jan. 4, and perhaps until November of next year.

At this point none of the 9.2 million people covered by the Federal Employee Health Benefits program know how much premiums will jump next year, how deeply benefits will be cut or even when they will be allowed to shop for a new policy.

The U.S. Court of Appeals last Friday stayed an earlier ruling by U.S. District Court that directed OPM (Office of Personnel Management) to go ahead with an open-season enrollment period beginning yesterday. The stay is to last until Jan. 4, unless some legal action yet to come forces the open season sooner. Different people read that order different ways. Example:

An OPM spokesman says it will be "at least 30 days, perhaps not for at least several months and it is even possible that there will not be an open season until late 1982."

A spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees -- one of the unions that has accused OPM of messing up the insurance program and delaying the open season -- said the Court of Appeals' Dec. 4 decision in the open season case clearly provides that open season shall begin in 30 days or less. The sole reason given by the court for this very limited stay is the confusion that would otherwise beset federal employes as a result of OPM's failure to publish timely brochures" that advise workers of rates and benefits.

"The decision in no way supports OPM's arguments regarding benefit cuts," said Jim Rosa, the union's general counsel. "It is designed to protect federal employes and not to support OPM."

Next week there will be oral arguments before the Court of Appeals on the issue of OPM's attempt to cut insurance benefits below what the carriers wanted. If the unions win, then when the open season begins the insurance program will not contain the 6.5-percent cut in benefits OPM wanted, cuts that were nullified earlier by U.S. District Court. If OPM wins, then cuts will be allowed to stand, meaning that 1982 premiums paid by the government will be reduced along with benefits in many plans.

What all this means is that nobody knows exactly when there will be an open season, what benefits insurance plans will offer or withdraw, or what the premiums will be for any of the plans. Stay tuned!