Federal workers and retirees can save as much as $1,500 in premiums and out-of-pocket costs next year if they pick the health plan that is best for them and their families, according to the Washington Consumers Checkbook magazine.

Between now and Dec. 11 the half million civil servants and retirees in the Washington area must decide which health plan they want to cover them for 1988.

Checkbook, which has been rating plans since 1979, says this year's choices are tough because of big premium increases in many plans.

The magazine recommends that shoppers consider health maintenance organizations that offer prepaid, as opposed to fee-for-service, insurance.

Plans with many options tend to attract people who have or expect heavy medical bills.

In coming weeks, we will run special columns listing recommended best buys for singles, retirees and individuals expecting heavy medical or dental costs next year.

Today's ratings are for a family of three with average medical bills.

Checkbook ranks plans based on one's total estimated costs, including premiums, membership fees charged by some plans plus likely out-of-pocket (uncovered) costs. In a typical year, Checkbook says, a typical family of three has medical costs of about $3,800. Some families will have no medical costs while some could run up medical bills of more than $30,000.

Today's ratings are broken down into three categories: Plans open to everyone; special plans open only to certain groups of employes, such as the Secret Service, CIA, NSA and the like, and HMOs.

Here are the Checkbook ratings for plans available for family coverage. They are listed, generally, from least expensive to most expensive:

HMOs: Kaiser Mid-Atlantic, HealthPlus high option, CareFirst, Network high option, CIGNA, HealthWin, MD IPA, HealthPlus standard, George Washington high option, PruCare, CapitalCare, Group Health standard, Network standard, Physicians Care, George Washington standard and Group Health high option. In a typical year, Checkbook says, the costs under the Kaiser Mid-Atlantic plan would be about $1,020, while costs under Group Health high option would be $1,650.

Fee-for-service plans: Blue Cross-Blue Shield standard option, National Federation of Federal Employees standard, American Postal Workers Union, Postmasters standard, Mail Handlers standard, American Federation of Government Employees standard, GEHA, National Association of Government Employees standard, National Alliance standard, National Treasury Employees Union standard, Mail Handlers high option, National Association of Letter Carriers, Aetna standard, Postal Supervisors, AFGE high option, NAGE high option, NFFE high option, Postmasters high option, Blue Cross-Blue Shield high option, Aetna high option and National Alliance high option.

Special Plans: Secret Service, ACT, BACE, NATA, Federal Managers Association, GEBA, SAMBA and Foreign Service.

These ratings are for guidance only. Before picking a plan it is important to read the brochures to determine if the coverage matches one's needs and wants.

The magazine should be on newsstands this week. To order copies ($5.95 including postage), write Checkbook Insurance Guide, 806 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20005.