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Medicare Card Security Under Scrutiny

With identity theft an increasing problem, should Medicare revamp its card system to remove Social Security numbers?

Arnold Werner was concerned that his Social Security number was clearly visible on his Medicare card, so the 85-year-old retired chemist from Scott Depot, W.Va., scratched out the two middle digits. “I was worried about identity theft,” he says.

Patrick P. O’Carroll Jr., inspector general of the Social Security Administration, agrees with Werner. “Displaying [Social Security numbers] on Medicare cards unnecessarily places millions of individuals at risk for identity theft,” O’Carroll said in a recent report. Plus, beneficiaries have been instructed to carry their cards with them, increasing their vulnerability.

But the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is reluctant to fix a system that it says is not broken. “There have been no reports of identity theft traced back to Medicare cards,” says Charlene Frizzera, chief operating officer of CMS. “It would cost about $500 million and take three years to start up and five years to implement a new system.” And 44 million Medicare beneficiaries would have to be educated about the change.

Other agencies such as the Veterans Administration do not use Social Security numbers on cards they issue.

The Senate Finance Committee is urging bipartisan legislation that would force CMS to revamp the system. “It is unthinkable that Medicare puts its beneficiaries at risk by continuing to print Social Security numbers on standard identification cards,” says Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Cathie Gandel is a freelance writer based in New York.

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