The president's chief civil service adviser has called on federal agencies to shoulder the cost of health insurance premiums for employees in the National Guard and military reserves who have been called to active duty.

"I cannot impress upon you enough the importance I place on assisting these employee reservists in this manner," Kay Coles James, head of the Office of Personnel Management, said in a memo to agency heads Wednesday.

James, noting that the government is the largest employer of military reservists, urged agency heads to "implement a uniform policy in support of Department of Defense contingency operations by waiving the requirement that employees pay their share of the FEHB premiums incurred when they are called to active military duty for more than 30 days."

The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program provides health insurance coverage to nearly 9 million government workers, retirees, family members and survivors.

As in most health plans, the cost of the premium is split between the worker and the employer. In the government's case, when an employee is called to active military duty, the agency pays the total cost of the premium and later collects the employee's share.

Under James's plan, agencies would pay the total premium for 12 months and perhaps 18 months -- the maximum time allowed under law.

Reservists called up for longer than that would switch to Tricare, the military health program, which does not require participants to pay a premium. On Monday, the Pentagon revised Tricare rules so that reservists and their families can more quickly qualify for coverage.

James's request to agencies is not new, aides said, but has become more urgent with the war against Iraq and as more reservists are called up for homeland defense duties across the country.

A premium waiver would ease the financial burden facing many reservists. This year, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield standard option for families, one of the most popular plans in the federal health program, costs $768.82 a month. Employees pay $227.98 as their share of the premium, and the government picks up the remainder as the employer.

Two years ago, the Defense Department began paying the total premium for its civilian employees who serve in the reserves or National Guard. A number of other agencies also pay reservist premiums, but an OPM official said a complete list would not be available for another week.

In her memo, James said she believed all agencies should pay both the employee and government shares of the health insurance premiums.

"Providing support for these individuals is an important issue, and we should not let them down," James wrote. "Our first obligation as an employer is to make sure that those who perform active military duty are able to leave their employment temporarily with the knowledge that their affairs are in order and their rights protected."

Retirements

Joan Comanor, director of resource conservation and community development for the Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service, retired Feb. 28 after nearly 31 years of federal service.

Nancy Hunt, team leader for the Mixed Hazardous/Radioactive Waste Program at the Environmental Protection Agency, retired March 6 after 31 years of federal service.

M. Lucy Lomax, assistant director at the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board, retired March 3 after 33 years of federal service.

Janet F. Singer, deputy state director for the Bureau of Land Management in Billings, Mont., retired March 3 after 37 years of federal service.

Talk Shows

Mike Dovilla, aide to Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), will be the guest on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com.

Jennifer L. Dorn, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, will be the guest on "The Business of Government Hour" at 8 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

"Proud to Support Our Troops" will be the theme of the Imagene B. Stewart call-in program at 8 a.m. Sunday on WOL radio (1450 AM).

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