If you haven't found your year 2000 health plan, be advised: The open season ends next Monday.

Federal workers and retirees here have at least 17 health plan choices. Most plans are raising premiums. Some by a lot.

Premiums are important, but--unless you never get sick and never visit a doctor or dentist--they don't tell the whole story. Catastrophic limits, your out-of-pocket costs (for uncovered services) and the plan's prescription drug benefits are all things to consider.

Checkbook's Guide to Year 2000 Health Insurance Plans for Federal Employees gives the "big picture" view of plans. It rates them according to total likely cost to you, including premiums and out-of-pocket costs. It's at most book stores and drugstores and is available by calling 202-347-7283.

Because time is short, you should check out several health plan brochures. Run them by your doctor or dentist to see if the plans cover what your doctor does and what you need. Also, find out if your doctor is in the plans' preferred provider network. If not, get another health plan--or doctor--or be prepared to pay dearly.

Here's Checkbook's rundown of plans you should consider. The plans are listed in descending order, with the first listed being the least expensive, assuming you have an "average" or even above-average year of usage:

Fee-for-service plans: Blue Cross standard option; Mail Handlers standard option; Association; Postmasters standard option; Mail Handlers high option; GEHA; APWU; Foreign Service; NALC; Alliance; SAMBA; and, finally, the expensive Blue Cross and Postmasters high options. Foreign Service, Association and SAMBA are open to a limited group of feds. If the names don't ring a bell, you probably can't join them.

Health-maintenance organizations: Again in descending order of the least cost to you, Checkbook recommends you check out: Kaiser Permanente, Aetna US Healthcare standard, George Washington, Prudential, M.D. IPA, CapitalCare, Aetna high option and Free State.

Retirees For retirees without Medicare, with Part A only and with both Part A and Part B, Checkbook suggests looking at Kaiser Permanente, George Washington, M.D. IPA and CapitalCare among the HMOs and also considering fee-for-service plans such as Blue Cross standard, Association, Foreign Service, Rural Carrier, Mail Handlers standard and Postmasters standard (for its prescription drug benefit).

Health plan experts say that none of the federal health plans is "bad" and that most are quite good. But some--especially the high option varieties of Blue Cross and Postmasters--are simply too expensive. It is unlikely that you will get your money back in the extra benefits they provide.

Insurance in Retirement Many private-sector companies scale back benefits when employees retire. Virtually all of them cut off health benefits when the retiree reaches age 65. But the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program is forever. Retired feds, their spouses, adult dependent children and in some cases grandchildren can keep coverage indefinitely.

But to be able to take health insurance coverage into retirement, feds must comply with the five-year rule. In most cases, that means they must be covered by one of the federal health plans for the five years immediately before retirement--including the year they retire.

Feds who are covered by a nonfederal spouse's health insurance and want to protect themselves--by complying with the five-year rule--while paying lower premiums are advised to sign up for coverage under one of the low-premium HMOs, or the Mail Handlers fee-for-service plan. Next year, its premium will be $590 for self-only coverage.

Being enrolled in any of the FEHBP plans is a way to guarantee that you can take coverage into retirement, when the federal health program is much better than virtually anything available to nonfederal workers.

SLRP Officers Russ Davis, of the American Federation of Government Employees union, is the new president of the Society of Federal Labor Relations Professionals. Other new officers are Margery Gootnick, arbitrator; Barbara Haga, Navy; Susan Anderson, IRS; Jesse Etelson, Federal Labor Relations Offices; Martha Dell Finlator and Holli Beckerman Jaffe, National Treasury Employees Union; and Ellen Saltzman, Office of Thrift Supervision.

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

Monday, Dec. 6, 1999