In our lawsuit-happy society, a growing number of federal workers are considering the pros and cons of adding a professional-liability policy to their already bulging health, life, care and homeowners insurance portfolios.

The threat of a lawsuit--from an unhappy taxpayer or employee--is always there, and some senior federal workers are afraid to leave home without insurance. The expression "I give at the office" has taken on new meaning.

For the nervous boss, relief, of a sort, is here.

Congress, as reported in the Federal Diary last month, has directed federal agencies to split the professional-liability insurance premium with selected employees. Workers eligible for cost-sharing are managers, supervisors and law enforcement officers, all of whom are sometimes required to defend themselves for actions taken as part of their official duties. The law applies to all federal agencies.

Previously, agencies were allowed, but not required, to share premium costs.

The authority for cost-sharing is contained in the Treasury, Postal Service, general government appropriations bill the president signed into law in late October. Although, the law requires agencies to help employees who need coverage, it limits the category of workers who are eligible.

Brian Friel, a writer for Government Executive magazine, says the premiums, which vary by amount of coverage, buy insurance that "pays for lawyers' fees during criminal or administrative investigations, up to $100,000 a year, and covers payment of civil fines or penalties, as long as the cost of the lawyers fees, plus the fines or penalties, is below $100,000."

The idea of splitting insurance premiums is a boon to some federal workers--also to some insurance companies and, as always, some lawyers.

Who needs insurance? Consider the odds:

According to Government Executive, the Office of Personnel Management reported last year that during a five-year period, the Justice Department received 7,000 requests from officials seeking legal representation and that only 150 were rejected. The report said that during the same period, only 15 federal employees were found personally liable for illegal job actions, and in 11 instances, their agencies compensated workers for their losses.

The magazine says that Wright & Co., of Washington, is one of the few firms that offers a professional-liability policy tailored to federal officials. Currently, premiums range from $229 a year (for $500,000 of liability coverage) to $292 a year (for $1 million in coverage). The insurance firm's Web address is www.wrightandco.com. The telephone number is 1-888-412-7322.

The National Treasury Employees Union is now offering professional-liability protection (underwritten by CNA Re Insurance Co. Ltd.) to members. The NTEU plan offers coverage of up to $1 million for liability, with up to $100,000 for legal fees and other administrative expenses. For details on the NTEU program, go to www.tie-inc.com and enter the password W#R@K or call 1-800-346-1403.

For partial premium reimbursement, employees need to contact their agency's human resources office.

Health Insurance

The open enrollment period for the federal health benefits program begins Monday. It will run through Dec. 13. During that period, any federal worker, retiree or survivor in the program can switch plans or options. Workers and retirees in the Washington-Baltimore area have the choice of seven fee-for-service plans (Blue Cross-Blue Shield, GEHA, Mail Handlers, APWU, Alliance, NALC and Postmasters) offering nationwide coverage and seven local health maintenance organizations.

The federal health program covers 9 million current and former feds and family members and in some cases grandchildren and ex-spouses. It is the nation's biggest--and many say best--group health program.

Under the federal program, nobody who is eligible can be turned down by any participating plan because of age, health or preexisting medical or mental condition. Premiums next year are going up an average of 9.3 percent. But for some plans, the increase is less, and a few are actually cutting premiums.

At 9 a.m. tomorrow on WUST radio (1120 AM), insurance expert Walton Francis talks about best and worst buys. He's editor of the Washington Consumers' Checkbook Guide to Federal Health Insurance.

During the open season, the Federal Diary will have a series of columns on best buys, drawing on tips from Francis and Bill Smith, of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.

Discrimination Complaints

At 10 a.m. tomorrow on WUST radio, Peter Gray, a senior attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's office of federal operations, will talk about new regulations and changes in guidelines for processing government EEO complaints.

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