How to ruin a civil servant's breakfast:

Tell the unsuspecting federal worker that health premiums are going up an "average" of 9.3 percent next year. Then show the actual dollar increase in that particular worker's health plan. Then stand back.

For some folks, the first peek at the new premiums is enough to curdle their breakfast porridge.

Take yesterday's Federal Diary. Please.

It listed the new premiums federal workers will pay next year in health maintenance organizations participating in the federal health program. The open season for picking the year 2000 plan runs from Nov. 8 through Dec. 13.

After reading the column, some readers demanded a recount or correction. The numbers, they said, had to be wrong! Sorry. The numbers were correct. (Well, except for one small typo.)

Typical was the e-mail of Anne N. Like others, she knew premiums were going up an average of 9.3 percent next year. But turns out her health plan isn't average.

"Surely the Free State Health Plan is not increasing a whopping 93 percent???" she says. The premiums listed in the Federal Diary make it appear that her plan is "nearly 100 percent higher than Kaiser Permanente and 80 to 90 percent higher than every other health maintenance organization in the area."

"Please tell me there was a mistake in your column! This increase would wipe out my 2.3 percent cost of living adjustment, and then some." (Retired federal workers are due a January COLA of around 2.3 percent. Federal workers will get a pay raise averaging about 4.8 percent.)

In fact, her favorite HMO is one of several plans that is going up much more than the 9.3 percent average. The good news is that some plans are cutting premiums, or going up less than the average increase, which is based on premium changes in all the nearly 300 participating plans.

It shows that averages can be accurate, but also very misleading.

The fee-for-service Alliance Health Plan, for example, is cutting premiums next year. Beginning in January, nonpostal workers will pay $55.59 biweekly for single coverage, a decrease of $6.77, and those in the family plan will pay $109.00, a decrease of $15.58. Retirees in health plans pay the same premiums but on a monthly (rather than biweekly) basis.

Premiums in several popular fee-for-service plans (listed here Sept. 30) are going up only slightly. The most popular plan in the program, Blue Cross-Blue Shield's standard option, will increase employees' standard option premiums for single coverage to $30.04, while the family plan premium will go up to $66.78 biweekly. That means the biweekly premiums paid by employees will increase by $2.22 and $4.46, respectively.

Here, for HMO policyholders who couldn't believe their eyes yesterday, are the year 2000 biweekly premiums for nonpostal employees. They may not work out to the 9.3 percent average, but they were, and still are, correct:

* Aetna U.S. Healthcare: High-option single coverage, $29.37, up $6.08. High-option family coverage, $77.33, up $18.73. Single standard option, $18.67, up $2.21. Family standard option, $43.80, up $5.11.

* CapitalCare: Single coverage, $25.86, down 37 cents. Family, $77.47, down 32.45.

* Free State Health Plan: Single, $46.07, up $22.20. Family, $108.82, up $22.72.

* George Washington University Plan: Single, $24.36, down $9.68. Family, $62.91, down $8.78.

* Kaiser Permanente: Single, $23.50, up $1.67. Family, $58.10, up $2.83.

* MD-IPA Plan: Single, $26.15, up $2.86. Family, $75.15, up $11.96.

* Prudential Health Care HMO: Single, $33.26, up $10.20. Family, $70.75, up $19.98.

Naked (as in Uncovered) Postals The National Association of Letter Carriers says that at least 25,000 letter carriers aren't enrolled in any federal health plan. While it would love to have them in its program (which is open to all federal workers), union President Vincent Sombrotto says the uncovered federal employees better get in some plan--any plan--fast.

Many federal workers are under their spouses' private-sector health plans. But at retirement, many of those plans raise premiums, cut benefits or eliminate retirees or spouses for coverage. By contrast, the federal health plans give retirees the same benefits and premiums as workers--for life. But to be able to carry the federal plan into retirement, workers must have been enrolled in the program for the five years prior to retirement. They can't pick up a federal health plan at the last minute.

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

Wednesday, Oct. 13, 1999