Attorneys and officials at the Health Care Financing Administration are still trying to figure out what Congress meant when it said feds who retire in January would only have to work "a short period of time" that month to qualify for Medicare benefits.

Beginning in January, government employes will have to start paying 1.3 percent of salary -- between $100 and approximately $450 a year, depending on income -- for the Medicare portion of Social Security. In return, they will become eligible for Medicare coverage.

But employes who leave government service in January will get a special break. They will have to pay only a tiny portion of the Medicare tax to be eligible for Medicare at age 65.

Thousands of workers who had planned to leave government this year have delayed putting in their retirement papers.

They hope to wait until January, put in the minimum time on the job (and pay the minimum Medicare tax) and then retire. It is up to HCFA to decide how long they will have to hang around. HCFA is still studying the situation.

Many employes, with lots of use-it-or-lose-it annual leave time, need to retire before the end of the government leave year (Jan. 8 for most people). If they wait until after that date, they cannot be paid for annual leave in excess of 30 days.

For most people, getting Medicare eligibility would be worth the annual leave loss -- even though it can amount to thousands of dollars for some people. But most of them hope they can have it both ways, that is retire before the leave-year cutoff and still get Medicare benefits too. We'll let you know when HCFA sets the date.