Dear Heloise:

I thought your readers would like to know that beginning in January 2006, Medicare will offer prescription-drug plans. However, now is the time to see if you qualify for some extra financial help in paying your monthly premiums, annual deductibles and prescription co-payments under the new program.

Social Security is mailing letters to nearly 19 million people who are potentially eligible for this extra help. This letter will explain the prescription-drug program and tell you how to apply for the extra help. Those who qualify could save an average of $2,100 per year.

To qualify for the extra help, a person or married couple living together must have a limited income and resources. You can qualify for this help as an individual if your total annual income is below $14,355 and your resources are valued below $11,500. The limits for a married couple living together are higher -- $19,245 in combined annual income and $23,000 in resources. Even if your income is higher, you still might be able to get some help.

It is important to note that some beneficiaries will automatically qualify for the extra financial help. Anyone who has both Medicare and Medicaid, Medicare and Supplemental Security Income, or whose state pays his or her Medicare premiums will not have to complete an eligibility application. Even if you automatically qualify for extra help, you still need to enroll in a Medicare-approved prescription-drug plan to obtain both coverage and the extra help.

So, even if you do not get an application in the mail, you still might be eligible for help. See if you might qualify and apply online at Social Security's Web site, www.socialsecurity.gov. You can also contact Social Security at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) for more information or to apply over the phone.

To learn more about the Medicare prescription-drug plans, call 800-MEDICARE (800-633-4227) or visit www.medicare.gov.

Oscar Garcia, public affairs specialist,

Social Security Administration

Oscar, you are always so helpful, and I know my readers will have those phones ringing off the wall . . . hope the operators are ready.

Send a money- or time-saving hint to Heloise, P.O. Box 795000, San Antonio, Tex. 78279-5000, fax it to 210-HELOISE or e-mail it to Heloise@Heloise.com. Please include your city and state when faxing or using e-mail. I can't answer your letter personally but will use the best hints received in my column.

(c)2005, King Features Syndicate