Dear Harry: I was laid off from my job after 17 years of continuous employment. I anticipate being called back when business improves because I was uniquely qualified for my job. So far, nothing. In the meantime, I have been on unemployment comp for the last three months. The company has me paying my own health-insurance premiums under the COBRA rules. I am getting to the point where I'll have to give up the insurance or stop making car payments if I don't get additional funds. I do have an IRA, but I'm too young to tap it without a penalty. My wife has almost no earning capacity so I can't go that route. Is it possible to hit the IRA or my company's pension plan without getting clobbered?

What Harry says: Most ofcoursely! There are exceptions built into our tax laws to prevent injustices. There's one there for you. It applies only to the IRA, not to the company's plan. As long as you have been on unemployment comp for at least 12 weeks (three months contains 13), you may take out enough money to pay the health-insurance premiums without getting hit for the penalty. The government is not so generous as to waive the income tax on the withdrawal, however. Just don't go over the amount of the premiums or you'll get hit for the 10 percent penalty on that excess. To save yourself a question from IRS, be sure to attach a statement to your return indicating what you have done.

Write Harry Gross c/o the Daily News, 400 N. Broad St., Philadelphia, PA 19130. Harry urges all his readers to give blood - contact the American Red Cross at 800-GIVE LIFE.