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Yip: Remove Social Security number from Medicare cards

By: Pamela Yip, Dallas Morning News

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Dallas, May 26, 2013 | comments
I have previously written columns calling for the federal government to remove Social Security numbers from Medicare cards to protect seniors from identity theft.
Now, I’m encouraged that there’s been some movement on this by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the agency that administers the Medicare program.
This month, CMS issued a report that outlined two options for removing Social Security numbers from Medicare cards:
Creating a new Medicare number called the Medicare Beneficiary Identifier that wouldn’t be derived from a Social Security number in any way and, in fact, would replace it.
Displaying only the last four digits of the Social Security number.
Costs have been a sore point for CMS, which at one point said it would cost as much as $845 million to make the changes.
But in August, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Congress’ nonpartisan investigative arm, said the methodology and assumptions CMS used to develop its estimates “raise questions about their reliability.”
The powerful House Ways and Means Committee then tasked CMS with reassessing the cost of removing Social Security numbers from Medicare cards, using GAO guidelines.
As a result, CMS said it would cost about $317 million to replace the Social Security number with a new beneficiary identifier, down 62 percent from the agency’s earlier top estimate.
Obscuring the first five digits of the Social Security number would cost about $255 million.
“CMS takes seriously our responsibility to provide high quality health care to Medicare beneficiaries, while also protecting their privacy,” a CMS spokesman said. “We are currently evaluating options to remove the Social Security number from Medicare cards that would cause the least impact on health care providers and beneficiaries, while lowering the risk of identity theft.”
Let’s move it along, CMS. This is long overdue.
In 2008, the Social Security Administration inspector general recommended that Social Security numbers be removed from Medicare cards.
Three years later, the Justice Department reported that of the approximately 8.6 million households victimized by ID theft in 2010, 1 million were headed by someone 65 or older.
The departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs and private insurers “have already removed or taken steps to remove SSNs from display on their identification or health insurance cards,” the GAO said.
“CMS’ option to replace the SSN with a new identifier for use by both beneficiaries and providers offers the greatest protection against identity theft,” it said in a report in August.
Lawmakers are poised to force CMS’ hand.
CMS officials have “dragged their feet long enough,” said U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano, a member of the Ways and Means Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Social Security.
“If CMS won’t do what’s right for America’s seniors, we will.”
Johnson and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, have re-introduced the proposed Medicare Identity Theft Prevention Act of 2013 that would remove Social Security numbers from Medicare cards.
More than 48 million Medicare cards display the Social Security number, according to the GAO. This turns millions of seniors into sitting ducks for identity theft when seniors are already one of the most vulnerable targets for this insidious crime.
It does no good to tell seniors not to carry around their Social Security card when they have to show their Medicare cards in order to receive benefits.

Let’s fix this fast by removing the entire Social Security number from Medicare cards. Seniors deserve no less.

Follow Pamela Yip on Twitter at @pamelayip.
pyip@dallasnews.com
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