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By Fred Schulte, Center for Public Integrity 

Carol Berman, of West Palm Beach speaks with pedestrians about the need for policymakers to protect Medicare Advantage benefits during the Coalition for Medicare Choices' Medicare Advantage Food Truck stop on North Capitol Street in Washington on Monday, March 9, 2015. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Carol Berman, of West Palm Beach speaks with pedestrians about the need for policymakers to protect Medicare Advantage benefits during the Coalition for Medicare Choices’ Medicare Advantage Food Truck stop on North Capitol Street in Washington on Monday, March 9, 2015. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Private Medicare Advantage plans treating the elderly have over-billed the government by billions of dollars, but rarely been forced to repay the money or face other consequences for their actions, according to a new Congressional audit.

In a sharply critical report made public Monday, the Government Accountability Office called for “fundamental improvements” to curb overbilling by the health plans, which are paid more than $160 billion annually. The privately run plans, an alternative to traditional fee-for-service Medicare,  have proven popular with seniors and have enrolled more than 17 million people. The plans, which were the subject of a Center for Public Integrity investigation, also enjoy strong support in Congress.