One of the most valuable benefits available to federal employees, retirees, and survivors is the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, which in 2009 will offer coverage in 269 plans, including 10 nationwide fee-for-service plans that are open to all.

Among the FEHB’s most attractive features are these:

* no medical examination is needed before you enroll;

* there aren’t any restrictions based on your age, health or preexisting conditions;

* benefits are available immediately on the day you first enroll or when you change plans;

* each plan has a self only and a self and family option;

* you can change plans every year, and, under certain conditions, during the year;

* catastrophic limits protect you from medical bills that are out of sight;

* there are a wide range of health plan choices;

* the government substantially subsidizes the premiums, keeping them within reach; and

* if you meet the requirements, you can carry that coverage into retirement.

This year’s open season runs from November 10 through December 8, which will give you plenty of time to review the benefits of plans you are interested in and their premium costs. While agencies will be providing material that will help you in that effort (and OPM will be doing the same for retirees and survivors), you can access all the plan guides and premium rates at www.opm.gov/insure. Also available at that website is a useful plan comparison tool.

Comparing plans will be an especially good idea this year, because enrollee premium costs will be rising by an average of 7.9 percent, with the most popular plan – Blue Cross and Blue Shield – going up by a whopping 12.9 percent for self only coverage and 13.4 percent for self and family. If ever there was a time for shopping around, this is it.

However, premium costs aren’t everything. Coverage that meets your needs is. As noted earlier, since there are no restrictions on age, health or preexisting conditions, you can select a plan based on your specific needs for the coming year. For example, if you know that you are facing major surgery or treatment for cancer, you can select a plan that not only provides extensive coverage but also includes your preferred doctors and hospitals.

As the old saying goes, prior planning pays off. Do you homework now and rest easy later.