Government workers who pay more than $2 billion a year for health insurance would get a premium break under legislation being drafted by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Under the proposal, the government would pay about 70 percent of the premium tab for employes and retirees--compared with about 60 percent now--and two special health insurance programs tailored to the special health needs of retirees would be set up.

Stevens' plan will include special incentives for insurance carriers to control costs. Not a bad idea, if it can be made to work. Health insurance premiums for government workers have jumped by more than 50 percent because of skyrocketing increases in the health care industry.

The legislation would be aimed at expanding the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, the nation's largest employe-employer health system. It covers nearly 10 million workers, family members and retirees worldwide.

More than half the people in metropolitan Washington--from members of Congress to stenographers and their families--depend on the federal health benefits program to cover their medical, dental and hospital bills.

The typical federal worker in Washington has about 20 health plans to choose from (there are more than 100 in the program). They range from giants such as Blue Cross-Blue Shield and Aetna to local health maintenance organizations and union-backed plans. Some even cover exclusive groups such as workers at the FBI, National Security Agency and the CIA.

Unlike many private employers, who pay all of their employes' insurance premiums, the government picks up about 60 percent of the premium (depending on the cost and the plan), based on a complicated formula set by Congress. Postal workers--thanks to their union contract--have about 70 percent of their premiums paid by the government.

Stevens' bill, which is to be introduced later this year, would treat federal retirees differently. One possibility being considered by Stevans would be to set up a special plan with a high option for those without Medicare coverage and a less costly low-option for those with Medicare. The retiree health plan would provide medical services that are important to older workers, and not offer things like maternity coverage.

Many federal workers complain that their health plans contribute to higher costs (and therefore higher premiums) by failing to question what they consider excessive medical fees. Under the Stevens plan, all insurance carriers would be under the gun to do so. The idea is that if all of them took a more hard-nosed approach to what they would pay for, costs could be contained.