The House Ways and Means Committee has approved major changes in the Social Security benefits due most federal workers as well as the benefit due government retirees who are counting on Social Security spousal or survivor benefits.

On Friday I joined --

unfortunately in print --

the growing club of people who get confused when they try to explain the complex changes that the committee is making in federal worker-retiree Social Security benefits. A committee staff aide gave me the choice of either undergoing rather painful surgery for my sins, or clarifying the committee action in this space. I have chosen option two, and this is what the committee really did:Windfall Benefits: It approved a modification of the so-called windfall benefits law that imposes a partial cut in Social Security benefits for retirees who earned them, plus a federal or public pension.

Under current law, the Social Security benefit earned by an individual is partially reduced -- up to $1,500 a year in some cases -- for government retirees who have less than 30 years of covered Social Security service.

The committee modification reduces the time that federal, state and local government workers need to have under Social Security-covered employment to get a full benefit, to 25 years. That provision, if it becomes law, could mean an extra $1 million in benefits next year for federal, state and local government retirees because many more would avoid the windfall reduction.

Pension Offset Loophole: The committee also closed a loophole in the new Federal Employees Retirement System that allows workers who join FERS for as little as one day to escape the so-called pension offset. That offset reduces the Social Security spousal or survivor benefit that government retirees get based on the Social Security eligibility of their spouses.

Currently, the spousal or survivor benefit is reduced $2 for every $3 that an individual gets in a government pension. The committee approved language that would require employes to spend five or more years under the FERS plan (and paying into Social Security) before they would be exempt from the spousal offset. Insurance Premiums

Insiders predict a big jump in health insurance premiums next year for federal workers and retirees. Although some plans may actually reduce premiums, indications are that some of the major plans -- those with the largest number of worker and retiree subscribers -- will seek increases of 20 to 40 percent.

Washington area workers and retirees are eligible to participate in about 25 of the nearly 400 plans in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. FEHBP covers more than 10 million workers, family members and retirees, including half the people in the Washington area.

Negotiations start next month on the premiums that health plans may charge and benefits they will offer starting in January. The Office of Personnel Management negotiates for the government. Health insurance watchers say that medical costs are zooming upward nationwide, and that federal health premiums, which went up an average of 14 percent in January, are headed even higher next year.

Federal and postal workers and government retirees will have an open enrollment period this year -- after the new rates have been announced -- when they can shop around for less expensive coverage.