Being a reader-friendly column gets old after a while.

So here's a change of pace. No more Mr. Nice Guy. These are tips on how to lose money--$500 or more next year--on your health insurance. It's easy.

First a warning: The health insurance open season for federal workers and retirees begins today. It runs through Dec. 13. You are going to be bored stiff reading and hearing about health insurance. Who cares about premiums, generic vs. brand-name drugs and co-payments?

Why waste hours of your otherwise exciting life looking at health plan brochures or asking your doctor which plan or plans he or she prefers?

What's the big deal about catastrophic coverage anyhow?

So what if you can't see the doctor you want? Or they send you to a clinic that used to be a mobile home?

Whatever.

If you find that kind of medical/insurance stuff a bore, do this:

Shut off your brain for the next five weeks. Sleepwalk through the health insurance open enrollment period. Worry instead about a Y2K meltdown. Or the Redskins defense.

Open season will be closed before you know it, and you will remain in the same health plan you've probably been with for years.

But if you can't ignore all the yapping about health insurance and are still too busy or important (This is Washington!) to be bothered about your family's health coverage for the next year, do the best thing:

Ask a co-worker what health plan he or she plans to get next year. The fact that you're married (he's single), you're 45 (he's 92) and you're healthy (he's not) shouldn't be any barrier. After all, you both work at the same place.

Even better: Ask for advice from somebody in your car pool. You know, the one who is always late, who wears one brown shoe and one black shoe some days, the one whose bag lunch smells funny and always has the grease spot in the same place. That one.

Ask your van buddy about shopping for health insurance. You want to do what he does, right?

Wrong!

Do some homework.

You have a chance to provide almost total coverage for yourself and your family--even assuming the worst-case medical situation--by picking the federal health plan that is best for you and yours. Even through premiums are going up an "average" of 9.3 percent next year, some plans are actually cutting premiums. Others are going up only a few dollars per pay period.

The most important thing, in health coverage, is catastrophic coverage. How much would you spend out of pocket if the worst happened?

Feds in the Washington-Baltimore area have 22 plans (14 fee-for-service and eight health maintenance organization plans) to choose from. All are good. But some are just too expensive. And a couple have gaps that may (or may not) be important to you.

During the open season--with the help of insurance experts Walton Francis, of the Washington Consumers' Checkbook Guide to Federal Health Plans, and Bill Smith, of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees--we will publish a series of best-buys columns. They will rank plans for singles, couples, big families, people with special medical problems and retirees with, and without, Medicare.

The pocketbook-size Checkbook guide is on sale at newsstands for $8.95. Or it is available by calling 202-347-7283. Its rankings include more than just premiums. It shows the total likely average dollar amount you will pay next year in premiums, membership fees and uncovered out-of-pocket costs in each plan.

Premiums are important. But they don't tell the whole story--such as what is and isn't covered, what expenses you must pay and what deductibles must be met.

Here are Checkbook's best buys for singles showing your estimated total average cost in each plan for the year 2000.

HMO Plans

Aetna U.S. Healthcare standard option, average cost for single coverage next year (premiums, out-of-pocket expenses, etc.), $2,340 according to Checkbook.

Kaiser Permanente, $2,640; George Washington, $2,730; MD-IPA, $2,920; CapitalCare, $2,940; Aetna high option, $3,090; Prudential, $3,130; and Free State, $3,490.

National Fee-for-Service Plans

Here are Checkbook's ranking for the preferred provider option of each plan. Those who fail to use the PPO can expect to pay slightly more out of pocket next year. An asterisk indicates the plan is open only to certain groups.

Mail Handlers standard, $3,100; Blue Cross standard, $3,290; Association Benefit*, $3,430; Foreign Service*, $3,500; Rural Carriers*, $3,640; Postmasters standard, $3,770; APWU, $3,790; GEHA, $3,830; SAMBA*, $3,880; NALC, $3,910; Mail Handlers high option, $3,930; Alliance, $4,190; Blue Cross high option, $4,220; and Postmasters high option, $5,710.

Monday, Nov. 8, 1999