Federal workers and retirees who are locked into health plans that cost more and protect less may get a chance to shop for better, or cheaper, insurance packages within the next few months.

Office of Personnel Management brass will meet today or next week to decide whether (and if so, when) to hold an "open season" in the nation's largest health program that covers 9.2 millions feds, retirees and families.

Normally the government holds an open season each November. The idea is to give workers and retirees a chance to shop for the coming year's insurance needs.

OPM canceled the 1981 open season (for the 1982 insurance year) on the grounds that it could not print and distribute brochures outlining benefit and premium changes in time, because of several pending court cases.

Several unions and insurance firms took OPM to court, challenging its right to force them to drop certain benefits (such as nonemergency abortions) and to cut overall benefit levels to reduce the 1982 increase in the government's share of health premiums.

The U.S. Court of Appeals is considering whether to order OPM to hold an open season. But OPM officials may decide to have the open season before the court rules, or to have one even if the court doesn't order it.

The last open season was held in 1980. During the enrollment period 159,465 people--less than 5 percent of the retirees and employes enrolled in the health program--switched plans. If there is an open season this year, the number of changes could be much higher.

Many feds still have not received brochures outlining their 1982 coverage. Most people--by looking at paycheck or annuity check deductions--are well aware of premium hikes.

Some insurance plans, those with low premiums or attractive benefits, are eager to see an open season. They figure they will pick up a lot of new subscribers.

Some of the plans, those with big increases in deductibles, big premium jumps and benefit cutbacks, would prefer not to have an open season this year. The fear they will lose many "healthy" subscribers and be left with "heavy users"--a code word for retirees and people undergoing mental health treatment--whose benefits cost a lot more than the premiums they pay. Word on the when-and-if of the next open season should be out shortly.