Perhaps more than in previous years, federal employees and retirees will rely on the Internet this year to shop for health insurance.

For example, the Office of Personnel Management, which administers the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, yesterday posted a 77-page guide to the 2005 insurance plans on its Web site (www.opm.gov/insure). The guide helps kick off the annual FEHBP open season, which runs through Dec. 13.

By most accounts, printed copies will be in short supply at many agencies. That means employees will need to spend time on their office and home computers to get their homework done.

Almost all the experts say employees and retirees should compare their current coverage against two or three other plans, if for no other reason than to take time to think about what types of medical expenses they need to plan for in the next year. For 2005, premiums vary significantly, and there are differences in coverage among FEHBP plans.

OPM also has added options for 2005. Most of the last 20 pages of the OPM guide, for instance, focus on new high-deductible plans featuring "health savings accounts" (for employees) and "health reimbursement arrangements" (for retirees).

Many employees probably will find it difficult to compare HSAs -- which allow for tax-deductible contributions to savings/investment accounts -- against more traditional health coverage. But the FEHBP guide provides a good start and includes definitions and descriptions of how HSAs and HRAs work.

Although the FEHBP will have 249 plans in 2005, many are not available nationwide. The OPM Web site offers a handy search engine that allows you look at plans by Zip code. In the Washington area, the Zip code search usually turns up two dozen plans that are available to employees and retirees.

From the Zip code listing, employees and retirees can compare plans (as many as four at a time) to see what kinds of costs they would shoulder in deductibles and co-payments for hospital stays, doctor office visits and prescription drugs.

Premiums, of course, are not the only standard by which to judge health plans. But cost is an important factor for many enrollees.

To help estimate how much you are likely to pay for premiums and out-of-pocket medical expenses, the nonprofit Center for the Study of Services, which publishes Washington Consumers' Checkbook magazine, has just issued its 2005 guide to the FEHBP (available at www.guidetohealthplans.org).

For a General Schedule employee who is single and younger than 55, Checkbook's ratings identify several plans as good buys. Nationally, they include Blue Cross and Blue Shield's basic option, the American Postal Workers Union consumer-driven option, the GEHA high-deductible plan and the Blue Cross standard option.

Checkbook's ratings show that General Schedule employees in the Washington area who are single and younger than 55 should also look at three health maintenance organizations -- Kaiser's high option, M.D. IPA and the Aetna Open Access basic option.

For a General Schedule employee buying coverage for a family of four (all younger than 55), Checkbook's tables indicate that Blue Cross basic and standard options and the APWU consumer-driven option are worthy candidates among nationwide plans.

A Washington area family of four (all younger than 55) for whom price is an important consideration also should look at three HMOs, Kaiser high option, M.D. IPA and Aetna Open Access basic, according to the Checkbook ratings.

Checkbook's ratings show that the Blue Cross plans also are good buys for a General Schedule family of two, ages 55 to 64. In the Washington area, the Kaiser, M.D. IPA and Aetna HMOs rank highly.

Two nationwide plans that should appeal to many retirees (65 and older and enrolled in Medicare parts A and B) are GEHA's standard option and the Blue Cross basic option. Checkbook also gives a favorable cost rating to GEHA's high-deductible plan for a single retiree and to Mail Handlers high-deductible plan for a family of two.

Washington area retirees also should look at Aetna Open Access basic option, M.D. IPA and Kaiser's high option, according to Checkbook.

Blue Cross on Diary Live

Stephen W. Gammarino, senior vice president for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association's federal employee program, will take questions on the 2005 FEHBP open season at noon tomorrow on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline. Join us then or send a question in advance.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com