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Government Finally Taking Steps to Make Medicare Cards Safer

 Dateline: May 4, 2015

After years of putting millions of Americans at risk of identity theft, the federal government will stop printing Social Security numbers on Medicare cards.

Part of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015, signed into law by President Obama on April 16, requires that Social Security numbers must not be “displayed, coded or embedded on the Medicare card,” as they have been for years.

Social Security numbers are the “Holy Grail” of identity thieves who use the number to gain access to all aspects of their victims’ financial lives. Believing they have to carry their Medicare cards with them in order get medical care, seniors are especially at risk.

Aside from the risk of identity theft to Medicare beneficiaries, stolen Social Security numbers are often used to fraudulently claim Medicare benefits, thus driving up annual Medicare premiums paid by all beneficiaries.

But Change Won’t Come Fast

As always, getting federal agencies to completely change the way they have been doing something for years, usually takes years.

The law gives the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Cabinet-level overseer of the Medicare program, up to four years to start issuing Medicare cards with new beneficiary identifiers that are NOT Social Security numbers.

In addition, the law gives the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services four year to reissue the newer, safer cards to current Medicare recipients.

Changes to the Medicare card is bundled in a promisingly “good news for seniors” section of the law ordering HHS to create and implement “cost-effective process that involves the least amount of disruption to, as well as necessary assistance” to Medicare beneficiaries.

Yes, this change will be expensive, so the law sets aside money from the Medicare trust funds for getting it done. Of course, these trust funds are financed primarily by Medicare premiums paid by seniors and payroll taxes paid by workers.

Do You Really Need to Carry Your Medicare Card?

Cleary, the information on the current Medicare card most-wanted by identity thieves is the Social Security number, and carrying the card around in your pocket is asking for trouble. But do Medicare beneficiaries really need to keep their cards with them?

Unfortunately, the government gives then little reason to think they do not. Printed on the back of the red-white-and-blue card are instruction to, “Carry your card with you when you are away from home,” and, “Let your hospital or doctor see your card when you require hospital, medical, or health services under Medicare.”

However, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and other consumer advocates advise that in most cases, actually having the card is not necessary in order to get medical services.

In fact, the Social Security Administration (SSA) advises Medicare beneficiaries not to routinely carry their cards “or other documents that display your (Social Security) number.”

How to Protect Yourself

Until Social Security numbers are actually removed from new Medicare cards and all old cards have been replaced, the AARP and SSA offer these tips for keeping your Social Security number out of the hands of identity thieves:
  • Don’t carry your Medicare card. But if you don’t feel comfortable without it, make a copy of the original card and blackout all but the last four digits of the Social Security number and carry the copy instead.
  • Give the Social Security number in advance. Once your regular health care providers have your number, they have it in their computer systems. But if you make an appointment with a new provider, give them your number over the phone and ask them if you will need your card on your first visit.
  • Review your quarterly Medicare statement. It lists all services and treatments you have received under Medicare Part A and Part B. If you notice care or services you did not get, it could be a sign that your Social Security number has been stolen. The federal government offers several resources for reporting and recovering from identity theft.

What About Social Security Cards?

While the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 does not apply to Social Security cards, the Social Security Administration has long advised that it is rarely necessary to show anybody your Social Security card. In fact you do not even need your card when applying for Social Security benefits. “Do not carry your card with you. Keep it in a safe place with your other important papers,” advises the Social Security Administration.

[ How to Replace a Lost or Stolen Social Security Card ]

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