Government spin doctors, whose jobs often require them to put on a happy face, point out that next year's federal pay raise more than offsets higher health insurance premiums. White-collar federal workers are in line for an average pay raise of 4.8 percent, effective in January, when health premiums will go up an average 9.3 percent.

Federal workers and retirees have lots of wiggle room when shopping for insurance. Typically, they can choose from about 20 plans, including nationwide fee-for-service plans and local health maintenance organizations. That's a bigger choice than is available to virtually any private-sector worker. (Remember, the federal program covers high government officials and members of Congress, too.)

So far, so good.

All the plans available to federal workers offer both single and family coverage. Some offer standard- and high-option coverage.

Increases in premiums will vary widely. For instance, increases for family coverage will range from $184 to $1,866 a year, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

What you've got to do, the experts say, is balance the premium increase against how much more a federal worker or retiree will be getting next year.

According to OPM, the average raise for a white-collar civil servant in the Washington area will be worth $2,856 next year, bringing the average salary to $62,365.

Clearly, the typical federal worker can well afford the higher premiums--especially when that worker has the option of switching to a lower-cost plan during the health insurance open season in late November and early December.

Comparing averages is useful to a point. And it is most comforting, especially if one is average or above average.

But here's the problem. About 160,000 white-collar federal workers in the Washington area--out of a white-collar universe of about 230,000 people--don't make $62,000 now and won't get anything close to it when the raise goes into effect next year. That includes everybody in Grades 1 through 12 and about half the people in Grade 13. The number is higher if you include rank-and-file postal workers who make less than $37,000 a year.

Some federal retirees are in worse shape. Because their pensions are linked to inflation--which is low--their January cost-of-living adjustment will be much less than the percentage increase active-duty workers will get. The COLA increase (with about a month left to go in the COLA countdown) stands at 2.3 percent. And retirees generally have a lower base income, yet their health premiums will go up the same amount.

Frank G. Atwater, president of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees, says premium increases (averaging 7.2 percent in 1998, 9.5 percent in 1999 and 9.3 percent next year) have "significantly eroded retirees' income and heightened their fear of losing affordable health care."

Bobby L. Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, says the 9.3 percent average increase in premiums is "not acceptable."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) wants congressional hearings on how the federal program operates and how OPM contains costs and approves premium increases. Cummings says premiums are "out of control."

Insurance experts point out that a 9.3 percent rise isn't out of line. Health costs traditionally increase faster than inflation in general. Also, the Clinton administration has mandated some benefits coverage that has increased health costs.

There is no bad guy in government who is letting health companies get away with murder. And the hearings Cummings wants, which probably should take place, aren't likely to turn up clear evidence that the program is not well run.

Federal workers are lucky to have so many choices and a boss that picks up 72 percent of the premium tab.

Federal retirees are extremely lucky to be with an outfit that--unlike many private employers--offers the same insurance, with the same coverage at the same premium to retirees and spouses.

But to kiss off a a 9.3 percent premium increase as not bad for ordinary people is a bit much for the hundreds of thousands of federal workers--in the Washington area and across the country--who don't make the "average" $62,000 a year. For many workers and retirees, the choice next year is between a less-desirable (lower-cost) health plan or doing without something to help pay higher premiums.

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

Wednesday, Sept. 22, 1999