It’s about time.
For three years, I’ve been getting on the federal government to stop imprinting Social Security numbers on Medicare cards, a practice that placed millions of people at risk for financial losses from identity theft.
I’m finally getting my wish.
In April, President Barack Obama signed legislation that, among other things, will end the use of Social Security numbers as the main identifier on Medicare cards.
All I can say is, hooray.
“That’s a giant step forward,” said Rep. Sam Johnson, a Texas Republican, who along with Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, pushed for the change. “The problem we’ve been having with Social Security numbers on Medicare cards — that’s been around for a long time, and I think too long.”
He and Doggett have been working on this since 2008.
“One of our priorities is trying to get it done as fast as we can, because taking the number off the Medicare card is not the easiest thing in the world,” Johnson said. “I don’t have an idea of how long it will take to get it all done, but I think probably as much or less than four years.”
The main purpose of the law, adopted with broad bipartisan support, was to overhaul the way doctors are paid for treating Medicare patients. But it makes other changes as well, including requiring that Social Security numbers must not be “displayed, coded or embedded on the Medicare card.”
According to the law, Medicare officials have up to four years to start issuing cards with new identifiers. They have four more years to reissue cards held by current Medicare recipients.
The law directs the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish a “cost-effective process that involves the least amount of disruption to, as well as necessary assistance” to Medicare beneficiaries and health care providers.
Your Social Security number is your most critical personal identifier. Simply put, it is the gateway to your financial life, and if someone obtains it, they can make your life a living hell.
Seniors are prime targets for identity thieves. Because they have to carry their Medicare cards to obtain medical services, that leaves their Social Security number vulnerable.
In past years, many entities have urged officials to reduce the use of Social Security numbers as identifiers. Most private health insurance companies already have abandoned the use of the numbers to identify individuals.
But officials have cited high costs, the volume of changes, and operational and systems issues as barriers to altering the Social Security number on Medicare cards.
To pay for the changes, the new law sets aside money from Medicare trust funds that are financed with payroll and other taxes, and with premiums paid by those receiving Medicare.
The mandate has been handed down. Let’s get to it.
Pamela Yip is a personal finance columnist for the Dallas Morning News.