The Social Security Administration (SSA) advises Americans to keep their Social Security card in a safe place. At the same time, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) tells their beneficiaries to carry their Medicare card – which includes their Social Security number – with them at all times. What is a Medicare beneficiary to do? And what should the government do about this conflict?
If beneficiaries carry their Medicare card in their wallet, or their Social Security card for that matter, and it falls into the wrong hands they could be setting themselves up for identity theft and/or fraudulent benefit claims submitted to the Medicare program. For many years, members of Congress and government agencies, including the Social Security Administration and the U. S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), have called on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to remove Social Security numbers from Medicare cards.
The U. S. Government Accountability Office first recommended removing Social Security numbers (SSNs) from government documents in 2002. In a 2008 audit, the SSA Inspector General reported that displaying SSNs on beneficiaries’ Medicare cards unnecessarily places millions of Americans at risk for identity theft and that the SSN should be removed from Medicare cards. In 2008, the House of Representatives responded by passing the “Medicare Identity Theft Prevention Act of 2008,” introduced by Representatives Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and Sam Johnson (R-TX). The House-passed bill directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish cost-effective procedures to ensure that SSNs are not used on Medicare cards moving forward. Doggett and Johnson’s legislation passed the House by voice vote, but no action was taken by the Senate before the 110th Congress adjourned.
The call for removing SSNs from Medicare cards continued. In 2014 the GAO testified at congressional hearings on ways CMS could reduce fraud in Medicare, including “the removal of Social Security numbers from the millions of Medicare cards.” CMS testified that they agreed with the GAO’s recommendations, but at that time they could not proceed for several reasons including funding limitations and the lack of a process for developing and transitioning to a new identifier.
In the current 114th Congress, Representatives Johnson and Doggett reintroduced their legislation, H.R. 380, the “Medicare Identity Theft Prevention Act of 2015,” which the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare endorsed. It would remove Social Security numbers from Medicare cards. The provisions of H.R. 380 were included in H.R. 2, the “Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015.” This legislation, the so-called “doc fix” bill, was passed by Congress and is now Public Law 114-10. Since the bill’s enactment, Department of Health and Human Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell testified that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is on track to remove Social Security numbers from Medicare cards by 2019.
Until the government completes action on removing SSNs from Medicare cards, beneficiaries should not carry their card with them. A possible alternative is for beneficiaries to carry a photocopy of their Medicare card with all but the last four digits of their Social Security number cut or scratched out. Beneficiaries may need their original copy with them the first time they visit a new health care provider who may want a copy for their files or, preferably, beneficiaries may be able to provide their number over the phone. But in the meantime, beneficiaries should take precautions to reduce their personal risk of becoming an identity theft victim.
Government Relations & Policy, April 2016