People who retire from government have the biggest stake in what congressional and White House officials do to the federal health program, which covers 10 million people, including half the population of the Washington area.

If would-be reformers make the federal health plan more like private-sector packages, government retirees could be the big losers. There are nearly 100,000 U.S. retirees here. About 2,000 people join the ranks each month.

Critics of the U.S. health program say it's too big -- with 400 plans -- and too complicated -- with more than 1,000 options. They say government pays less of its employee premiums than many private companies. Everybody would be better off, they say, if there were fewer, but more competitive, plans.

But when they talk about making the federal health plan more like a private-sector plan, hold on to your wallet if you are retired or planning retirement.

One reason private sector health plans can give workers better coverage and premiums is because they take it out of the hides of retirees.

Often overlooked is the fact that many private firms that once paid the total premium now charge workers. Some refuse to cover dependents. Many plans put a waiting period on coverage of pre-existing medical conditions. Some companies raise premiums, cut benefits or both for retirees. Some firms don't offer insurance to retirees. A growing number are warning retirees that they cannot guarantee health coverage.

The government health program, with all its faults, treats retirees and workers the same. U.S. workers can keep their health coverage in retirement. Workers and retirees pay the same premium and get the same benefits, although retirees generally have heavier medical bills and cost their plans -- and their former employer -- more money.

The U.S. Postal Service is talking about setting up its own health plan for its 850,000 workers. But postal officials have made it clear that they want to leave high-cost current retirees in the federal health program. The new plan, they propose, would be for future retirees.

Last week, the Bush administration told the Postal Service that if it goes to its own health plan, it should take its retirees with it. Office of Personnel Management Director Constance Berry Newman told a House subcommittee that the Postal Service "should accept the financial responsibility for all their retirees" and their survivors and not leave them in the regular federal health program, where their presence would raise premiums for everyone.

Work at Home

The House on Friday approved legislation by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) that would allow federal agencies to pay for installation of computer-hookup telephone lines in the homes of workers. That could pave the way for more work-at-home opportunities for employees in computer-related jobs.