Friday is the end of the health insurance hunting season for most government workers and retirees.

Since the open enrollment period began in early November, present and former feds have been trying to figure out which health plans will offer them the best protection at the lowest cost next year.

The Federal Employee Health Benefits Program pays some or all of the health and medical bills for about half the people living here. Most federal workers and retirees in this area are eligible to choose among 20 to 25 plans.

Nationwide, the program covers 11 million government workers, family members and retirees -- from government scientists to former presidents. It is far and away the biggest company health plan in the country.

Premiums are going down next year in most of the health plans, by about 4 percent on average for civil servants and by about 6 percent for retirees. This is the first time the average premium has been reduced, and the cuts are the result of a decline in usage by policyholders, who are paying a bigger share of their medical bills themselves.

Half a dozen plans intend to make refunds early next year, regardless of whether policyholders keep their current health plans or switch to others.

Retirees who haven't received information by mail on the open season or who receive it too late will be given extra time to make choices.

But the Office of Personnel Management, which handles the health program, says that the health insurance open season will not otherwise be extended beyond Friday.