Medicare card ID protections overdue

WASHINGTON — Despite deep ideological divisions, Democrats and Republicans in Congress still can find common ground on one thing: their frustration with Medicare.

Five years after being told to look at taking Social Security numbers off Medicare cards, Medicare officials told lawmakers at a sometimes-tense House hearing Wednesday that they still need six more months to figure out how much it will cost.

Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, said if military and health organizations can do it “and you were asked to do it so many years ago, I don’t understand what’s taking so long.”

Johnson introduced a bill in April that would prohibit Medicare from including Social Security numbers on benefit cards. The legislation was referred to committee, but Johnson insisted Medicare should be able to simply replace the old cards with new ones.

Medicare Chief Information Officer Tony Trenkle indicated the process would be more complicated, involving updating IT systems, educating Medicare beneficiaries about the changes and reassessing budget priorities laid out by Congress.

As he pounded his fist on a table, Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa., asked Trenkle on the issue of identity theft, “Do you care?”

Trenkle assured lawmakers that the issue was a priority, but he could only offer a timetable for the change based on a report discredited by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Before Medicare officials can start stripping cards of the Social Security number, they first must present a new estimate of how much such an operation would cost.

Congressional auditors said in a report Wednesday that an earlier cost estimate of $800 million to $845 million was faulty.

The Defense Department launched a strategy to remove Social Security numbers from identification cards issued to service members, their families and retirees in April 2011. Veterans Affairs has also stopped issuing ID cards and health authorization cards that show the veteran’s Social Security number. When asked by Johnson why the Medicare agency “can’t follow in the footsteps of DOD and VA,” Trenkle said the organizations are set up differently and conduct different operations.

“It’s not exactly comparing apples to apples,” Trenkle said.

Kathleen King, director of health care at the GAO, indicated that changing from a Social Security number to a new ID number would require Medicare to work with health care providers who might have “antiquated” systems, complicating the process.

Attempting to take some of the heat off of Medicare, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said the agency would be working with “over a million small businesses, some of whom we’re trying to nudge into the world of electronic record-keeping.” He also suggested lawmakers “ought to cut slack” for career civil servants like Terkle.

GAO estimates that as many as 48 million Medicare beneficiaries risk having their identity stolen because their Social Security numbers are displayed on Medicare cards required by most physicians’ offices and other health care providers.

“We all know Americans are told not to carry their Social Security cards to protect their identity in case a wallet is lost or stolen,” Johnson said. “Yet seniors are told they must carry their Medicare card which displays the Social Security number.”

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