Medicare Cards, Identity Theft, and You

Learn How to Protect Your Identity

Wallet showing social security card
Your Medicare card has your Social Security number on it. duckycards/Getty Images

Identity theft is on the rise. In 2016 alone, there were 329 healthcare data breaches involving 16,471,765 medical records. It doesn't help that Medicare cards blatantly post Social Security numbers as the Medicare Claim Number. How can you protect yourself?

What Do the Numbers (and Letters) on Your Medicare Card Mean?

Medicare enrollment is actually run by the Social Security Administration (SSA), not by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Instead, CMS focuses on the rules and regulations of the Medicare program, determining your coverage benefits and how hospitals and providers will be paid. The two federal agencies work in concert.

With Social Security at the helm, it should not be surprising that your Medicare Claim Number will often match your Social Security Claim Number. There are exceptions, of course. If you are receiving Social Security benefits based on someone else's record, e.g., your spouse or your parent, that person's social security number will be listed as your Medicare Claim Number instead. When you become eligible for Social Security benefits on your own record, e.g., retirement, the Medicare Claim Number will be changed to your own personal Social Security number.

There are all other identifying numbers and alpha characters on your card too. You can use this guide to help you interpret your own card:

  • A - You are a retired primary claimant.
  • B - You are the spouse of a primary claimant.
  • C - You are the child of a primary claimant.
  • D - You are a widow or widower.
  • E - You are a widowed parent to the primary claimant.
  • F - You are the parent of the primary claimant.
  • H - You are eligible based on disability.
  • J and K - You are a "special beneficiary"
  • M - You are not eligible for free Part A but are enrolled in Part B.
  • T - You are eligible for Medicare benefits but not Social Security benefits.
  • W - You are the disabled widow or widower of the primary claimant.

Who knew you could learn so much about a person based on one little card?

Social Security Numbers and Your Medicare Card

The debate over about taking Social Security numbers and Medicare cards has been going on for years. The Office of the Inspector General made this recommendation in formal reports in 2006 and again in 2008. The U.S. Government Accountability Office not only published a report on the subject in 2012 but also gave recommendations on how to do it in 2015. They recommended changing from paper cards to electronic Medicare cards, replacing Social Security numbers with other identifying information put into bar codes.

Unfortunately, it has always come down to dollars and cents. In 2011, CMS estimated that the cost of changing all existing Medicare cards would be prohibitive, as high as $845 million. That left Medicare beneficiaries, the people actually at risk for identify theft, to pay the highest price. That is, until the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) of 2015 finally put beneficiaries first.

Signed into law by President Barack Obama, the law requires that Social Security Numbers be removed from Medicare cards by April 2019. The change will not happen overnight. The Department of Health and Human Services has four years, until 2019, to make this change for people new to Medicare but eight years, until 2023, to change cards for those already on Medicare.

CMS isn't waiting. They actually plan to beginning mailing new Medicare cards to all beneficiaries, new and old, starting in April 2018. They will also allow a transition period where people and healthcare providers/facilities can use either the old or the new number to exchange data with CMS.

This transition period will last from April 2018 through December 2019. Hopefully, that is enough time to smooth out the course.

What to Do While You Wait for Your New Medicare Card

In the meantime, how can you protect yourself from identity theft? Carrying around any cards or documents with your Social Security number on it comes with great risk. If your wallet is lost or stolen, you could be handing your financial future to identity thieves.

You have to guard your card. 

Many people follow recommendations made by the Privacy Rights Clearing House to make copies of their Medicare card and keep the original at home. They advise you cut the paper copy down to wallet size and then cut out the last four digits of your Medicare Claim Number. Alternatively, you could use a permanent marker to black out the last four digits. While you will need your original Medicare card the first time you see a healthcare provider, this copied card can be a handy resource at follow-up visits. It is at least one way you can decrease your risk of identity theft.

A Word from Verywell

You may not have realized how much your Medicare card says about you. It not only shares your Social Security number, it lets people know if you are disabled or widowed or have children. Identity thieves have a lot to gain from that information while you have a lot to lose if your card gets lost, stolen, or hacked. The federal government has finally taken steps to remove this information from your Medicare card to protect its beneficiaries. Expect a new card in the mail as early as April 2018.

Sources:

Largest Healthcare Data Breaches of 2016. HIPAA Journal. http://www.hipaajournal.com/largest-healthcare-data-breaches-of-2016-8631/. Published January 4, 2017.

New Medicare Cards Offer Greater Protection to More than 57.7 Million Americans. Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services. https://www.cms.gov/Medicare/New-Medicare-Card/index.html. Published May 30, 2017.

New Medicare Cards Will Not Display Social Security Numbers. Office of the Inspector General. http://oig.ssa.gov/newsroom/blog/apr29-medicare-card-SSN. Published April 15, 2015.

MEDICARE: Action Needed to Remove Social Security Numbers from Medicare Cards. United States Government Accountability Office. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-949T. Published August 1, 2012.

MEDICARE: Potential Uses of Electronically Readable Cards for Beneficiaries and Providers. United States Government Accountability Office. http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/669228.pdf. Published March 2015.

Continue Reading