Are you a federal retiree trying to keep a lid on your health care costs?

For the 2003 health insurance open season, now underway, premiums provide a good starting point for evaluating plans and deciding which coverage looks most likely to fit your needs. The tax code, after all, does not allow retirees to use pretax dollars to pay premiums.

Let's assume you are enrolling in the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program as a retired couple living in the Washington area and not yet eligible for Medicare.

Health maintenance organizations, when compared against the nationwide plans, should save you at least $500 in premiums and other costs, according to an analysis by Walton Francis, the principal author of Checkbook's Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees.

Checkbook's top-rated plans for retired couples without Medicare are three local HMOs -- Kaiser Permanente, MD-IPA and the Aetna standard option.

Among the nationwide plans, four were rated by Checkbook as having the lowest combination of premium and out-of-pocket costs: the Blue Cross and Blue Shield basic option, the Mail Handlers standard option, the Blue Cross standard option and the Government Employees Hospital Association standard option.

What about a single person who receives a federal pension and has Medicare parts A and B?

Francis says individuals with both parts of Medicare get a better set of benefits in most nationwide plans. As a result, HMOs have relatively little cost advantage for those retirees. Still, it's worth remembering that retirees with Medicare who enroll in an HMO can always go outside the plan and use Medicare benefits elsewhere.

For the retiree with no spouse and no Medicare coverage, Checkbook recommends looking at the Kaiser HMO, the GEHA standard, the Aetna standard HMO, the MD-IPA HMO, the American Postal Workers Union consumer-driven option, the Aetna high-option HMO and the Blue Cross basic option.

Not far behind are the Mail Handlers standard, the Blue Cross standard, the National Association of Letter Carriers plan and the Postmasters standard option, according to Checkbook.

Francis notes that the GEHA standard and Mail Handlers standard both feature low premiums but are probably not good choices for a retiree with prescription drug costs of more than $1,000 a year.

He also notes that the Blue Cross basic option does not waive co-payments outside its network and that the APWU consumer-driven option does not waive co-payments for any health care providers. Despite those limitations, the two plans are still well worth considering because of their low premiums and other features, Francis says.

Data collected by the Office of Personnel Management show that most retirees with full Medicare coverage join the Blue Cross standard option and rarely leave it. But Francis points out that Checkbook's ratings show retirees can save significant amounts by enrolling in other plans.

Deciding which plan can save you money and fit your health care needs can be difficult. But OPM is trying to make the process easier, at least for the Internet-savvy.

OPM, which oversees the federal health benefits program, is providing retirees with free access to two interactive Web sites, Checkbook and PlanSmartChoice, to help make plan comparisons. The two sites can be reached through www.opm.gov/retire/fehb.

Checkbook's guide to the health plans, published by the nonprofit Washington Consumers' Checkbook magazine, also offers its specially tailored version free to government retirees (www.retireehealthplans.org).

Yes, the clock is ticking. The 2003 FEHBP open season ends Dec. 9.

Retirement David V. Hutchinson, the chief of the admiralty and maritime law staff in the Justice Department's Civil Division, will retire Sunday after 42 years of government service. During his Justice career, he handled the Tampa Bay Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster, the Georges Bank weather buoy failure and the liability aspects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Federal Diary Live Can't figure out which federal employee health plan is best for you? Thinking about switching plans?

Checkbook's Francis will take questions from federal employees and retirees about the 2003 enrollment season at noon today at www.washingtonpost.com. Please join us.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address is barrs@washpost.com.