At least a quarter of a million Medicare beneficiaries may receive bills for as many as five months of premiums they thought they already paid.

But they shouldn’t toss the letter in the garbage. It’s not a scam or a mistake.

Because of what the Social Security Administration calls “a processing error” that occurred in January, it did not deduct premiums from some seniors’ Social Security checks and it didn’t pay the insurance plans, according to the agency’s “frequently asked questions” page on its website. The problem applies to private drug policies and Medicare Advantage plans that provide both medical and drug coverage and substitute for traditional government-run Medicare.

Some people will discover they must find the money to pay the plans. Others could get cancellation notices. Medicare officials say approximately 250,000 people are affected.

Medicare and Social Security said they expect that proper deductions and payments to insurers will resume this month or next. Insurers are required to send bills directly to their members for the unpaid premiums, according to Medicare.

But neither agency would explain how the error occurred or provide a more exact number or the names of the plans that were shortchanged. The amount the plans are owed also wasn’t disclosed.

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Organizations that help seniors say they are getting some questions from Medicare beneficiaries. Two seniors in Louisiana lost drug coverage after their policies were canceled due to the error, said the state’s Senior Health Insurance Information Program director, Vicki Dufrene. One woman was without coverage for the entire month of May until earlier this week, when Dufrene was able to get her retroactively re-enrolled.

Dufrene said some people might not notice that their checks didn’t include a deduction for their Medicare Advantage or drug plan premiums. They may have assumed the extra amount was the expected cost-of-living increase.

Affected insurers must allow their members at least two months from the billing date to pay. And they must offer a payment plan for those who can’t pay several months of premiums at once, Medicare said. With both steps, “plans can avoid invoking their policy of disenrollment for failure to pay premiums while the member is adhering to the payment plan,” Jennifer Shapiro, acting director for the Medicare Plan Payment Group, warned the companies in a May 22 memo.

Lindsey Copeland, federal policy director for the Medicare Rights Center, an advocacy group, said she is concerned that older adults will view the bill with suspicion.

“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,” she said.

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