In between the turkey, leaf raking and football games this week, consider setting aside an hour of quiet time to review your health insurance options for 2006.

Economist Walton Francis, chief author of "Checkbook's 2006 Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees," estimates that federal families can save hundreds of dollars if they switch from some of the higher-priced national plans to standard options or health maintenance organizations.

Price, of course, should not be the only reason for switching plans. But if you have some flexibility -- a doctor who accepts payments from more than one insurance company, for example -- you might want to take a look at the dozen or so plans in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program that operate in most metropolitan areas.

Most FEHBP enrollees will see their premiums rise between 2.5 percent and 15 percent next year. (More than half of federal employees and retirees generally enroll in Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans. The Blue Cross standard option is going up by about 14 percent, and the basic option will remain unchanged.)

Checkbook's guide, a publication of the nonprofit Center for the Study of Services, rates FEHBP plans according to premiums and typical out-of-pocket medical costs, including dental and prescription drug expenses.

For federal employees younger than 55 who are seeking individual coverage, Checkbook rates the Kaiser, M.D. IPA and Aetna Open Access-Basic HMOs as good buys.

For employees younger than 55 who want a national plan with a preferred provider network, Checkbook gives the best average-cost ratings to the American Postal Workers Union's consumer-driven option, Blue Cross basic, the GEHA and Mail Handlers high-deductible plans and the GEHA standard option.

It's worth noting that some of those plans do not cover any, or only a few, services obtained out of network. It's also worth noting that plans featuring tax-preferred health savings accounts usually work best when enrollees pay close attention to how they are spending their medical dollars.

For federal employees younger than 55 buying insurance for a family of four, Checkbook rates Kaiser, M.D. IPA and Aetna Open Access as good buys among the HMOs.

Federal families of four seeking a national plan and willing to stay in network should consider Blue Cross basic, APWU's consumer-driven and high options, GEHA standard and Blue Cross standard, according to Checkbook.

For older, working couples, 55 to 64, Checkbook recommends Kaiser, M.D. IPA and Aetna Open Access-Basic as good buys. Among national plans with provider networks, Checkbook gives its best ratings to Blue Cross basic, APWU's consumer-driven and high options, Blue Cross standard and GEHA standard.

Federal retirees who are 65 and older, subscribe to Medicare Part B (which covers such expenses as doctor bills and outpatient care) and want a preferred-provider option have several choices, according to Checkbook. They include GEHA standard and high-deductible plans, APWU's consumer-driven and high options, Blue Cross basic and Mail Handlers high-deductible option.

Those choices, plus Blue Cross standard, also are good buys for federal retirees who take only Medicare Part A (which covers such expenses as inpatient hospital care), Checkbook's analysis shows.

Dozens of federal agencies have contracted with Checkbook to give employees free online access to the ratings. The agencies include the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, State, Treasury and Veterans Affairs, plus the Environmental Protection Agency and the Social Security Administration. Individuals may pay an $8.95 fee for access to the guide at

Several agencies, including the departments of Labor and Transportation and the General Services Administration, also have purchased access to PlanSmartChoice, which this year will feature a tax savings calculator to help employees compare high-deductible plans with savings accounts against more traditional coverage options. PlanSmartChoice is operated by Asparity Decision Solutions, a Durham, N.C., technology company.

The enrollment period for the 2006 federal health benefits program began last week and will end Dec. 12.

Diary Live

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