GAO pushes for removal of Social Security numbers from Medicare IDs

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has been slow to act on data it has collected that could help it implement a technical solution for removing Social Security numbers from Medicare cards, a newly released Government Accountability Office report concluded.

Such a solution, according to GAO, could be part of ongoing CMS efforts to "establish an architecture to support 'shared services'--IT functions that can be used by multiple organizations and facilitate data sharing." However, despite having already identified two potential approaches for removing SSNs--replacement via a new Medicare Beneficiary Identifier or masking the first five digits of SSNs displayed on Medicare cards--CMS has yet to establish a business case for an IT project to spearhead such an effort.

"Because the agency has not initiated a project for removing SSNs from identification cards, officials have not considered including shared services or other IT initiatives in their modernization activities and related plans to specifically support changes needed as a result of SSN removal," the report's authors said.

GAO said that the use of SSNs on Medicare beneficiary cards "introduces risks to beneficiaries' personal information," adding that many other organizations have replaced SSNs with alternate identifiers. It's an argument that was made at this time last year by GOP congressmen , who cited a report published by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Inspector General that also called for a stop to SSNs doubling as Medicare ID numbers.

An August 2012 GAO report determined that more than 48 million Medicare beneficiaries risked having their identities stolen due to SSNs being used on ID cards.

HHS officials said they agreed with GAO's recommendations, but said that a "clear source of funding for both IT and non-IT activities associated with SSN removal" would need to be identified first.

To learn more:
- read the report (.pdf)