June 11 (UPI) -- Hundreds of thousands of seniors in the United States have been informed by the government they will be billed for five months of unpaid Medicare premiums, which could total more than $1,000 each, due to a "processing error" by the Social Security Administration.
The administration said requests to deduct payments for the premiums from their Social Security checks weren't processed correctly in January and some Medicare Advantage and Part D beneficiaries will now receive bills directly from their plans.
The Department of Health and Human Services said the error may affect people who enrolled in either a Medicare Advantage Plan or a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan that began on Jan. 1.
"If you are affected and haven't already received a bill in the mail, you will soon," the agency wrote in notices to affected seniors. "The first bill will likely be for a larger amount than usual to make up for the unpaid premiums."
The amount could be hundreds of dollars more, as premiums can run in the high $300s per month.
HHS said the issue has been resolved and plan premiums will be taken out of recipients' Social Security payments, as they should have been, beginning this month or next. The error affects about 250,000 senior Americans, officials said.
Some lawmakers have expressed concern the federal mishap could now put seniors in a tough position. Last month, House ways and means committee Chairman Richard Neal and other legislators wrote a letter to both agencies seeking information about the exact number of people affected and how the failure occurred.
"We have concerns about the impact on Medicare beneficiaries affected by this problem," the lawmakers wrote. "For vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes, getting a bill for several months of unpaid MA or Part D premiums could lead to significant and potentially ongoing hardship."
About 33,000 Humana members were affected along with 32,000 with UnitedHealthcare and 43,000 from Aetna, the Medicare providers told Keiser Health News. The insurers are required to give the affected members at least two months from the billing date to pay and to offer a payment plan for those who can't pay multiple months' premiums at once.
Vicki Dufrene, director of Louisiana's State Health Insurance Information Program, said she knows of two seniors who lost drug coverage after their policies were canceled due to the error and another woman was without coverage for a month.
Dufrene added some recipients may not have noticed the deductions weren't being made between January and June and might assume the greater total could be due to other factors such as an increase in the expected cost of living. Other advocates fear the situation will cause undue confusion.
"If you think your premiums are being paid automatically and then your plan tells you six months later that wasn't the case, you may be confused," Lindsey Copeland, federal policy director for the Medicare Rights Center, said.
Some Medicare participants said they will allow the affected seniors to make installments on the past due amounts, rather than call for all of the missed premiums at once.