CMS poised to replace Social Security numbers on Medicare beneficiaries' ID cards

The Government Accountability Office has called for the removal of Social Security numbers from Medicare cards since 2004. (Getty/zimmytws)

The federal government has finally rolled out a timeline for removing Social Security numbers from Medicare ID cards, a move that experts and officials have long argued is critical to prevent fraud.

In April 2018, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will begin mailing new cards to Medicare beneficiaries that feature a randomly assigned number known as a Medicare Beneficiary Identifier (MBI), the agency announced Tuesday.

The MBI will replace the Social Security-based Health Insurance Claim Number (HICN), which is currently used on Medicare ID cards. When they receive their new cards, beneficiaries will be instructed to destroy their old owns and keep their MBI confidential.

The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) required CMS to make the change from HICNs to MBIs as the primary identifier on Medicare cards by April 2019. CMS said Tuesday that it will meet that deadline.

“We’re taking this step to protect our seniors from fraudulent use of Social Security numbers, which can lead to identity theft and illegal use of Medicare benefits,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said.

The Government Accountability Office has called for the removal of Social Security numbers from Medicare cards since 2004, saying the switch could help reduce billions in overpayments. As Marc Rotenberg, president of the electronic health records company EPIC, testified during a congressional hearing in 2015, the use of SSNs on Medicare cards adds to the heightened risk of medical identity theft that consumers already face from data breaches.

RELATED: Social Security numbers on Medicare cards: A well-worn welcome mat for fraud

Also at that hearing, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, expressed frustration with how long the process was taking. However, then-director of the Center for Medicaid Sean Cavanagh pointed out that the switch to new numbers involved a “complex, multiyear effort" to prepare stakeholders.

Building upon that effort, CMS is kicking off a “multifaceted outreach campaign” to get providers ready for the move, the agency said Tuesday, adding that it is instituting a 21-month transition period in which providers can use both the MBI and HICN.

During a House Ways and Means Committee hearing last week on the switch to the new cards, CMS’ deputy chief operating officer, Karen Jackson, said in her testimony (PDF) that the agency wants to “minimize disruption” as much as possible during the transition.

She also pointed out that with the new system, CMS will be able to terminate a Medicare ID number when needed and issue a new one, which wasn’t possible when using HICNs.

“Being able to deactivate a compromised MBI will enable CMS to quickly respond and better prevent further misuse of a compromised number,” she said.