Concern about the two widely separated hot spots, Wall Street and the Persian Gulf, temporarily has sidetracked legislation that would set up a catastrophic health insurance plan under Medicare for retirees. If the plan becomes law, it would cover virtually all public and private sector retirees in the nation when they reach age 65. But the version that has passed the House could force many federal retirees to pay $500 per year more for coverage they already have under other federal health programs.

The House already has passed a catastrophic health insurance plan that bases premiums for the new Medicare feature on non-Social Security income. It would be a good deal for retirees who have small pensions and who get most of their benefits from Social Security. But it would be costly and duplicative for most federal retirees and many private sector retirees whose primary benefits do not come from Social Security.

The Senate is working on compromises that would either allow retirees to opt out of the catastrophic health coverage under Medicare or reduce their premiums. The Senate had been scheduled to take up the plan this week, but now, with the Wall Street panic and debate over the War Powers Act, it has been put off, probably until next month. That delay should work in favor of unions, retiree groups and organizations that are seeking a plan that is more equitable. Retirement Guide

The Federal Times newspaper is offering free copies of staff-written booklets on the old federal retirement program, the Civil Service Retirement System, and the new program, the Federal Employees Retirement System. For copies, write to Federal Times, Springfield, Va. 22159.

Health Insurance

The open season for picking your 1988 federal health plan begins Nov. 9 and runs through Dec. 11. During that open season, we will have a series of special columns rating best buys for singles, families, retirees and persons with special medical problems. Although premiums on average are going up 31 percent next year, many of the smaller (but excellent) plans are holding the line or cutting premiums next year. Smart shoppers in some cases can save as much as $1,000 if they pick the right plan during the open season.

Hire Now, Fire Later

Some of the agencies that have done the heaviest hiring in recent months are among those that face the prospect of layoffs, should Congress and the White House fail to agree on a budget plan by Nov. 20. According to the Federal Research Service, a Virginia- based job-hunters' guide that tracks U.S. hiring practices, civilian federal employment jumped 17,495 from April to May. That put the number of federal workers (full-time, part-time and temporaries) at 3,095,712. Army did the most hiring, taking on 5,775 civilian workers, with Agriculture next at 4,255 new people. Interior hired 3,533 and Justice hired 1,114 during April. If major layoffs hit federal agencies -- some predict 100,000 jobs could be affected -- most cuts would be in defense-related agencies that make up about 49 percent of the federal civilian job population.

Job Mart

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has openings in Camp Springs for a physical scientist, GS 9 through 12, and a computer programmer analyst, GS 11/12. Civil service status required. Call Betty Long at (804) 441-6876.