Medicare IDs risk patient info

Republican lawmakers are calling on Medicare to remove Social Security numbers from identification cards to prevent ID theft, but doing so could cost millions to implement.

More than 48 million Medicare beneficiaries risk having their identity stolen because their Social Security numbers are on Medicare cards, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Wednesday.

Although most people know not to carry their Social Security cards with them to protect their identity (as advised by the Social Security Administration), beneficiaries who see doctors must pull out their Medicare cards that prominently feature their numbers in plain view, The Hill's Healthwatch reported.

GOP members accused CMS of being slow to act on revamping Medicare cards. The Defense Department and Veterans Affairs already have acted to remove Social Security numbers, the Associated Press reported.

But CMS noted that implementing that approach on a wide scale could be a completely different beast.

Medicare CIO Tony Trenkle said it requires updating IT systems, educating Medicare beneficiaries about changes and, of course, reassessing budget priorities, the AP noted.

GAO recommended using a whole new number (as opposed to truncating the number displayed). That way, providers don't have to store the Social Security numbers to provide services or to submit claims and would not need to query CMS. GAO said it's an option that offers the greatest protection and poses fewer burdens for beneficiaries and providers.

However, GAO Director of Healthcare Kathleen King also indicated that changing from a Social Security number to a new ID number would require Medicare to work with healthcare providers who might have "antiquated" systems, making for a challenging process.

CMS hasn't committed to any option yet. The agency estimates it will cost more than $800 million for whichever option it goes with, according to the GAO.

"If CMS won't do what's right for America's Medicare beneficiaries, then Congress must act," Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), chairman of the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, said in The Hill article.

Johnson introduced H.R. 1509 in April that would prohibit Medicare from including Social Security numbers on benefit cards, currently referred to committee.

For more information:
- check out the GAO summary and report (.pdf) on Medicare cards
- see the GAO summary and report (.pdf) on the cards of removing Social Security numbers from IDs
- read the The Hill's Healthwatch blog post
- read the AP article  
- check out the H.R. 1509 bill

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