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Does your Medicare card put you at risk for identity theft?

How to protect yourself

Created date

April 23rd, 2013
Medicare card

people are well aware of the perils of identity theft. On the advice of experts, we shred our personal and financial documents, we don t carry our social security cards in our wallets, and we protect our online passwords. Despite our best efforts, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that 8.6 million U.S. households (about 7%) had at least one person over the age of 12 who experienced identity theft in 2010 with an estimated financial cost of approximately $13.3 billion. As anyone with a Medicare card knows, the number on the card, your identification number, is not some random, agency-generated code. It s your social security number, the number that in the wrong hands could make anyone a victim of identity theft. This seemingly glaring discrepancy leaves 48 million Americans vulnerable to identity theft by virtue of their health care card.

Your Medicare card

Medicare recipients need to present their Medicare card each time they see a new doctor or use a new pharmacy. Americans over the age of 65 on average see a doctor almost twice as often as people aged 45-65 and an estimated 80% of older Americans take at least one prescription medication daily. That adds up to lots of exposure for people s cards and lots of opportunity for unscrupulous fraudsters to have access to people s social security numbers.

Social Security Administration

In a Social Security Administration booklet written for the public about protecting yourself from identity theft, it advises people to keep their social security numbers confidential. A dishonest person who has your social security number can use it to get other personal information about you. Identity thieves can use your number and your good credit to apply for more credit in your name. So what does the Social Security Administration advise people to do about protecting themselves from the number on their Medicare card falling into the wrong hands? The potential for misuse of social security numbers that could result from the need for Medicare recipients to carry their Medicare cards with them is a valid concern. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is the federal agency responsible for the Medicare program. Since CMS has jurisdiction over the format of Medicare cards, you may wish to refer your inquiry to CMS for consideration.

Advocating change

The Social Security Administration along with the Federal Trade Commission and even a presidential panel all support changing the identification number on Medicare cards. Consumer groups like AARP and the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse also support change. It s hard to argue that having the social security numbers of over 48 million people within easy reach of fraudsters is a good idea, but like most things in government, even when there is a consensus that something needs fixing, agreeing on how to proceed is a monumental problem. First, there are the costs. Testifying before Congress in August of 2012, Tony Trenkle of CMS estimated the costs of changing the identification numbers to be between $812 million and $845 million. Trinkle explained that because the Medicare program is multi-faceted and involves many different federal, state, and private entities, updating or revising all of the various computer systems would be a task of enormous complexity and cost and one that, undertaken without sufficient planning, would present great risks to continued access to health care for Medicare beneficiaries. While CMS states that changing the program would be both prohibitively costly and complex in the short term, a study conducted by the General Accounting Office (GAO) paints a different picture. In fact, the GAO questions the reliability of the CMS report and urges the agency to make appropriate changes.

What you can do

As the battle rages on in Washington, there is one measure recommended by government agencies, AARP, and the Center for Privacy Rights. While not a great fix, it could help. They suggest you make a copy of your Medicare card, cut the copy down to size so it fits in your wallet and cross or cut out the last four digits of your social security number. Carry the copy in your wallet and only bring your actual card with you when you re visiting a new health care provider or traveling. While this measure could protect you in the event that your purse or wallet is stolen, it s a small fix at best. If you are a Medicare beneficiary and want more information about protecting yourself and your identification number, contact the Center for Medicare & Medicaid at or call toll-free 877-267-2323. You can also write to: Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, 7500 Security Boulevard, Baltimore, MD