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Consumers face risk from the use of Social Security numbers on Medicare cards

Letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services regarding social security numbers on Medicare cards.

June 23, 2004

Mark B. McClellan, M.D., Ph.D., Administrator
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
7500 Security Boulevard
Baltimore, MD 21244-1850

Dear Dr. McClellan:

We are very concerned about the risk consumers face as a result of the use of Social Security numbers on Medicare cards. The Federal Trade Commission has listed identity theft as its top consumer complaint, affecting almost 10 million Americans last year. Many of these cases of identity theft are a result of lost or stolen wallets or mail. Identity thieves use the information on ID cards and in mail to steal identities, often ruining the good names and credit of victims.

Many commercial insurance companies have taken steps to remove Social Security numbers from their identity cards, and some of the largest, like Kaiser Health Foundation, have removed Social Security numbers from all of their customers’ cards. We believe that Medicare should take the same steps to safeguard the identities of Medicare recipients.

As we began investigating this issue, we called to ask what plans you currently have in place for removing Social Security numbers from benefit cards. Kim Brandt, Acting Director of Program Integrity for CMS, told us that while you had considered removing Social Security numbers from benefit cards, Medicare did not yet have a definite plan or timeline. At a time when some private health insurers have completed this process, we believe it is appropriate for you to devise a specific plan to remove these sensitive numbers.

Ms. Brandt also recommended that consumers insured by Medicare leave their Medicare cards at home unless they plan on traveling. Unfortunately, the Medicare card itself instructs people to carry it in their wallets. While we understand the importance of not carrying any item with a Social Security number, we believe this is not a solution to the problem. Consumers should be able to carry their cards with them without running the risk of identity theft.

We urge you to take the same action as private health insurers by discontinuing the display of Social Security numbers on benefit cards and mail, replacing them with unique ID numbers. By doing so, you will protect consumers and will help to curb the growth of identity theft.

We look forward to hearing from you in the near future on your progress toward this goal.


Rob Schneider
A project of Consumers Union