The government's 2.6 million workers have seven working days to complete Uncle Sam's important version of the old "You Bet Your Life" game. The decision employees make will have an impact on what their spouses, children or other survivors have to spend--or don't have to spend--after the employees die.

Federal workers have until June 30--that's a week from tomorrow--to take advantage of the open enrollment period for the Federal Employees Group Life Insurance program. FEGLI open seasons are rare. The last open season, for example, was nine years ago. So if you miss this one . . .

FEGLI is backed by the federal government. Although FEGLI claims are handled by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., the federal government pays those claims. The money comes out of a FEGLI pool. In other words, FEGLI is about as safe as you can get.

Shopping for insurance isn't a slam dunk. What you need and where you should buy it depend on your particular circumstances. For example:

Compared with many private insurance plans, FEGLI is expensive for younger workers and for middle-aged workers who are in good health. They often can get the same amount of coverage for less outside FEGLI.

But compared with many private insurance plans, FEGLI is cheap for anybody with a major health problem, smokers and older workers. For federal workers who aren't insurable elsewhere, FEGLI can be a godsend. If you have AIDS, terminal cancer or serious heart disease and sign up for the maximum coverage under FEGLI (which is more than six times your annual salary using all the options), your estate will be paid that amount--provided you live until April 24, 2000.

Most federal retirees can not make any changes during the open season. Retirees who have purchased Option B coverage (in amounts from one to five times final annual salary) can protect their coverage at pre-age 65 amounts during the open season. Otherwise, Option B coverage diminishes 2 percent a month--starting at age 65 for retirees--until it is eliminated. Retirees 65 to 69 years old can prevent Option B coverage from disappearing if they elect to "freeze" payments during the open season. The amount of Option B coverage they can protect from erosion is the amount they had as of April 24.

In Defense of FEGLI Last week, the Federal Diary printed portions of a "buyer beware" letter that Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) sent to colleagues. He said the warning applied to other federal workers, too.

In the letter, Mica, former chairman of the House civil service subcommittee, said FEGLI is too expensive for most employees. He suggested they shop around for lower-cost coverage in the private sector.

Mica's letter pleased many workers, and infuriated others.

In response to Mica's warning, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has issued a "Dear Colleague" letter of his own. He strongly suggests that employees check out FEGLI--especially the basic benefit--and think carefully before jumping to another insurance plan. The letter says, in part:

"All [federal and postal] employees are automatically enrolled in the basic program when hired unless they seek to waive coverage. The basic benefit . . . is equal to annual salary plus $2,000. Additional coverage may also be purchased at an added cost. Premiums . . . are cost-shared, with the government paying one-third of the premium.

"Regardless of age or health, if one chooses to participate, they would be charged 33 cents per month for every thousand dollars of coverage. For example, an employee earning $39,000 would have $42,000 of coverage for $14.10 a month.

"The Dear Colleague letter [from Mica] suggested that somehow . . . employees are being cheated because they could obtain similar coverage from the private sector at more favorable rates. In reality, it is not that simple. Unlike many commercial programs, all federal employees are charged the same rate for the same level of coverage for the basic program. Age, marital status, family medical history . . . or your health are not factors in determining either your eligibility or premium.

"As a result, some federal employees who are young and in good health may be able to obtain similar coverage elsewhere cheaper. However, middle-aged employees generally will find FEGLI very competitive. Older employees and/or employees with health problems find FEGLI not only an excellent value but the only option available. They are often unable to purchase life insurance at any price."

Hoyer suggests workers shop carefully and check out the Office of Personnel Management's home page at www.opm.gov.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causey@washpost.com