Federal workers and retirees will probably get a chance to switch health insurance plans in May, even though the U.S. Court of Appeals says the Office of Personnel Management acted properly last year when it scrubbed the "open season" supposed to begin in November.

Unions and various health plans took OPM to court, charging that the agency had no right to deny federal workers, whose health premiums jumped an average 30 percent in January, the right to shop around for new policies to cover them this year. On Friday the court upheld OPM's deferral.

OPM has announced that it will hold administrative hearings next week on its proposal to have an "open season" in May. Purpose of the hearings is to decide the ground rules that will apply should the late open season be held.

Many of the problems of the federal health program (it covers 9.2 million workers, family members and retirees) will be aired at the OPM hearings. Included in the testimony will be an article (to be published in the March issue of Hospital Financial Management Journal) by Walter J. Unger. He's associate director of professional affairs for HFMA, and considered an expert in the health insurance field.

Unger believes the government should pay a fixed fee dollar amount (adjusted annually) toward health insurance premiums of workers and retirees, rather than basing the federal contribution on a complicated averaging system. (OPM, as we reported last month, is considering such a system. It would give active duty workers the same flat fixed dollar payment they could use to buy insurance. Retirees, under the plan, would get slightly larger payments from the government.)

Unger also feels that the government should be barred from dictating benefit standards to the insurance companies, and that the carriers should be prohibited from imposing enrollment restrictions (i.e. union plans that require associate member fees from nonmembers). He feels OPM should be required to give workers and employes more information on benefits in various plans, and that carriers should be allowed to offer a special Medicare supplementary benefit package to retirees.