Starting next Monday, more than 500,000 U.S. workers and retirees in the Washington - Baltimore area begin their search for their 1985 health insurance coverage. For some it is as painful as surgery without painkillers.

The hunting season will run for five weeks. During that time current and former feds -- from senators to letter carriers -- must plow through stacks of insurance plan brochures, checking the prices, options and benefits offered by the more than 140 plans in the nation's largest company health plan. Nearly half the people in the Washington area are covered by it.

Most people here are eligible to join any of at least 20 plans. They range from nationwide giants like Blue Cross-Blue Shield and Aetna, to union-backed health plans and health maintenance organizations.

Although the average premium increase next year is 4.2 percent (the smallest increase since 1979), dozens of plans -- including some of the most popular ones -- will actually lower their premiums next year.

Each of the plans is different. Some (for a price) offer almost total coverage; some offer dental benefits; some are geared for retirees with Medicare coverage, others are geared for those without Medicare.

The "best" plan for you depends on the coverage you want, your family and health situation and what you can afford.

To help people make a choice we will, beginning Monday, run a number of columns on the health plans. Information will include premiums, total estimated costs (premiums plus out-of-pocket costs), and "best buys" in a variety of categories. So if you are worried about making the correct choice, stick with us during the hunting season.