Medicare ID fraud still a danger

The federal government continues putting Social Security numbers on Medicare identification cards and quarterly summaries mailed to beneficiaries, raising the odds of identity theft and fraudulent billing, Reuters reported.

Solving this problem won't be easy or cheap: The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services relies on more than 200 IT systems, and deleting Social Security numbers from Medicare cards and correspondence may cost the government up to $317 million, Reuters noted. Added costs would pass to providers for systems updates and to states whose Medicaid programs receive CMS data.

The AARP advised seniors to remove Medicare cards from their wallets; but some people hesitate to do that because they're afraid providers won't treat them in emergencies without evidence of insurance coverage, the article stated.

CMS sees two possible solutions: replace Social Security numbers with a new identifier or hide the first five SSN digits. Either fix would work, but there are no signs of forward progress, Reuters reported. So the fraud risk goes unmitigated as Medicare and its beneficiaries continue dealing with what Reuters called "a peculiar anachronism in this era of digital insecurity."

That anachronism led to healthcare data breaches in 2010 and 2011, when a printing error sent more than 13,000 Medicare summary notices listing Social Security numbers and healthcare services to the wrong addresses, Reuters reported.

Experts says it's almost impossible to clear up a medical record once medical identity theft happens, FierceHealthIT previously reported. And healthcare identity theft is growing, comprising 43 percent of all identity thefts reported nationwide last year.

Though there are no available data on Social Security numbers filched from Medicare cards, the government has long recognized the risk. U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) introduced legislation in 2011 to prohibit inclusion of Social Security numbers on Medicare ID cards, but the bill died in the Senate.

"At a time when 10,000 baby boomers are becoming eligible every day for Medicare, it's time to begin the process of fixing this," Leslie Fried, director of the National Center for Benefits Outreach and Enrollment at the National Council on Aging, told Reuters.

For more:
- here's the Reuters article