NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Carol Gee, a writer in Atlanta, recently became eligible for Medicare. Gee, like many other card-carrying Medicare beneficiaries, is concerned about having her Social Security number on her card and so takes particular care to keep track of her personal belongings.
“Expecting the government to change this for millions of citizens isn't realistic, so I try to do what I can to guard it,” Gee says.
Gee, like other Medicare beneficiaries, may be pleasantly surprised to learn that buried in the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act, which President Obama recently signed into law, is the change many government officials have been urging for years. Section 501 directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to work with the Commissioner of Social Security to eliminate the display of Social Security numbers on Medicare cards. The change is set to take place within four years.
The change is a long time in coming. In January 2006 report, the Office of the Inspector General instructed the Social Security Administration to "[e]ncourage the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to remove SSNs from its identification cards and partner with them to develop an alternate identifier that meets both agencies needs."
In 2006, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) reported that it would take up to 13 years in a $300 million budget to make the change-over.
In May 2008, in a follow-up audit, the Office of the Inspector General and the Social Security Administration released a report, Removing Social Security Numbers From Medicare Cards, following up on its previous recommendation. It found that "[d]espite the increasing threat of identity theft, CMS continued to display SSNs on identification cards it issued to Medicare beneficiaries. Displaying such information on Medicare cards unnecessarily places millions of individuals at-risk for identity theft."
Revealing such information on a Medicare card was particularly dangerous, because the CMS told Medicare beneficiaries, including a large elderly population, to carry their cards on their person at all times.
"We do not believe a Federal agency should place more value on convenience than the security of its beneficiaries’ personal information," the May 2008 report continued.
The problem has been that there is “no single Federal law [that] regulates the overall use and disclosure of [Social Security numbers],” according to the report.
In August 2012, there was a joint hearing on the removal of Social Security numbers from Medicare cards. The hearing focused on options for and the cost and impact of removing Social Security numbers from Medicare cards as well as why CMS had failed to develop and implement a plan to remove Social Security numbers from cards.
In October 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General released a report on the number of protected health information breaches suffered by Medicare beneficiaries, noting fewer remedies to beneficiaries who had their identity stolen than to the providers.
In September 2013, Sam Johnson (R-Texas), the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security chairman, and Kevin Brady (R-Texas) Subcommittee on Health chairman, released a report by the Government Accountability Office that confirmed that the CMS needed to take action to remove Social Security numbers from Medicare cards in order to protect the elderly against fraud and identity theft.
The main purpose of the new law was to change the way that doctors who treat Medicare patients are paid and to extend CHIP, a free or low cost health insurance program for children and other members of the family who qualify.
—Written by S.Z. Berg for MainStreet