BY ROGER SCHLUETER – News-Democrat
Q. Credit card companies and financial institutions have gone to great lengths to protect us from identity theft. However, the U.S. government still issues Medicare cards with your Social Security number on them. Are there plans to use some other form of identification on the card?
— O.V., of Fairview Heights
A. Here are a couple more numbers to consider: Two U.S. representatives from Texas are hoping the third time is the charm in their bipartisan effort to remove Social Security numbers from Medicare cards.
Yes, for the third time, Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat, and Sam Johnson, a Republican, have introduced legislation that would require federal officials to stop using Social Security numbers as your Medicare ID. But this is a numbers game that the government has been playing for years, so don’t hold your breath.About 50 million seniors carry a piece of identification that makes them highly vulnerable to identity theft: their Medicare card. You’re always told never to carry your Social Security number with you, yet Medicare tells seniors to always have their cards even though it prominently displays their SSN.As a result, if their purse or billfold is lost or stolen, that critical piece of personal identification can help criminals open new credit cards or draw on existing bank accounts in a flash.
In 2010, for example, 8.1 million U.S. adults reported their identities stolen. That was a 27 percent drop from the 11.1 million in 2009. But, on the other hand, it cost victims an average of $631 to clear up the mess in 2010 compared to the $387 the year before, according to the Javelin Strategy & Research Identity Fraud Survey.
For years, Congress, consumers groups and other federal agencies have been begging the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to join the rest of the financial world in disassociating the two forms of identification.
In 2004, the Consumers Union brought up the issue. In 2006, Congress requested the change through an appropriations bill. In 2007, President George Bush’s Identity Theft Task Force hopped on the bandwagon. And, in 2008, a U.S. inspector general weighed in. They say there’s no reason why Medicare cannot devise another number that would identify recipients to Medicare while safeguarding their identities from everyone else.
But so far the number of Medicare cards issued without an SSN is still zero — and that’s not likely to change soon. If you want to see a typical bureaucratic Kabucki dance, go to
and watch Doggett battle Medicare’s Kimberly Brandt during a 2008 congressional hearing on the subject.
Brandt says that CMS is making great strides. Medicare has removed SSNs from reimbursement checks, explanations of benefits and plan identifiers. But when asked when Medicare will remove the number from the cards themselves, she lapsed into governmentese.
“The real challenge for us is that there are operational and system issues that arise in terms of the crosswalks with the Social Security numbers and how that ties to Social Security,” she says before she is finally forced to add that she has no idea when a change could come.
That was four years ago and things don’t seem to be moving any faster today. When I called CMS for a progress report, I was told to submit my questions in writing. I did — three times over three weeks and I’m still waiting for a reply.
The official explanation is that such a change would take years and cost upwards of $500 million to develop a new numbering system and issue 50 million new cards.
Until then, I may have a couple of tips. First, here’s what the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse suggests: Don’t carry your Medicare card. Instead, make a copy of it and either cross out or cut out the last four digits of your SSN. Just remember to take the original card when you visit a new doctor for the first time.
Second, keep the heat on your representatives and senators.
After stumbling around the wilderness of sports and city halls for seven years, Belleville’s born-and-bred Roger Schlueter finally found his niche in Lifestyle in 1981. Helping start both the paper’s medical and entertainment sections, he has dabbled in everything from food to religion for the past quarter-century. As the Answer Man since 1987, he has become the paper’s go-to guy for arcane and unanswerable questions. He has even taken his show on the road, becoming a legend in his own mind as a popular emcee at area trivia nights.