Brace yourself. It's more bureaucratic madness.

This story is about a lady named Mary, who doesn't want her full name used.

Mary has cancer of the breast. She discovered it 15 years ago, when she was 50.

She underwent surgery and it appeared that she had beaten the disease. But several months ago, the cancer was back, so she went into the hospital and underwent two operations.

Since then, she's been receiving chemotherapy treatments every three weeks. Her doctor thinks she's winning.

And Mary has been feeling pretty good, all things considered.

At least she felt good until she received a letter from the Social Security Administration's Medicare Unit.

Mary had made claims to Medicare for part of the cost of the chemotherapy. Each treatment costs $200 or so, which puts a severe strain on her budget. She and her husband, a retired cook, live on about $800 a month in pension benefits.

Medicare doesn't pay all of the chemotherapy bill, but even part of it helps.

So when the envelope came in the mail, Mary expected to find a check for $400.

Instead, there was a computer-produced letter that said:

"Social Security Administration records indicate that the Medicare beneficiary named above is deceased."

Mary looked at the name. It was her name, all right. Medicare was telling her she was dead. Therefore it couldn't honor her claim.

The letter was signed by a man in the Claims Development Unit, and there was a pnone number, so Mary called it.

"I couldn't get through to the man who signed the letter," she says. "The person who answered the phone said I couldn't talk to him, but she'd listen.

"I told her that I was very much alive even though they were saying I was dead. And she told me she would take of it. I gave her all the information."

A couple of weeks later, another letter came.

" it told me I had pased away. So I picked up the phone and called them again. They said they'd take care of it."

A few weeks later, another letter arrived. Once again it said: "Social Security Administration records indicate that the Medicare beneficiary named above is deceased."

"Yes I called them again," says Mary. "I told them that I wished they would send me my money, instead of telling me I'm deceased. They told me they would straighten it out. I told them that they'd better do that because I didn't appreciate being told I was dead. I'd rather not hear from them at all if they were going to keep telling me that.

Mary waited. A few weeks pased. A fourth letter arrives. She was still dead.

Mary and her husband drove to the Social Security office and told the story. A bureaucrat looked up her records and said:

"According to our records, you died on April 16."

"Do I look dead?" asked Mary.

"No, I guess not."

"Thank you very much."

The bureaucrat wrote a note and told Mary to send it back with the last "you're dead" letter to Medicare.

"This will straighten it out," the bureaucrat said.

Mary did as she was told. She sent the bureaucrat's note to Medicare, then waited for her money.

The next letter she received was addressed to "The Estate of Mary . . ."

And again the letter told her she was no longer among the living.

"Now I don't know what to do," Mary says. "They've talked to me. They've seen me. But they still insist that I'm dead. Am I a zombie?"

Mary's physician, Dr. Lawrence Stone, angrily said: "It's always been bad, but lately it's been even worse because HEW set up a pilot program for an intermediary computer outfit to settle claims. It's supposed to save taxpayers' money. It's supposed to be cheaper than the old system. Well, if they're saving money, it's because they are not settling claims."

That is a novel idea: You save money by telling the claimants that they are dead.

The man whose is on the "you're dead" letter is Dan Dwyer. At least I assume that there is such a person. But you never know. That might be the computer's name.

Mary was never able to reach him, so I tried.

I reached a machine that played a recording that said: "The telephone correspondents are busy, please hold on and we'll connect your call as soon as possible."

I waited and the machine played the same message, over and over again, for almost 10 minutes.

When I tried again later, I received the same message.

So I never got through. I figure the lines must be jammed up by people calling to deny that they are dead.

And they're trying to explain that they aren't dead to people who might as well be.