WASHINGTON — In a public hearing before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging on Wednesday, committee chairwoman Sen. Susan Collins took aim at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, for putting senior citizens at risk by using their Social Security numbers as enrollment identification.
Last year, more than 330,000 Americans reported having their identities stolen, Collins said, and almost a third of those reports came from seniors.
Despite rising rates of reported personal and medical identity theft linked to the fraudulent use of Social Security numbers, Collins said, Medicare officials have failed to comply with federal recommendations to develop and implement an alternate system for identifying enrollees. The concern was first identified by the Government Accountability Office more than 10 years ago, she said, but the agency has failed to act.
“As a consequence,” she said in an opening statement, “the 55 million Medicare cards in use today still clearly display an individual’s Social Security number.”
Social Security numbers stored electronically as part of a patient’s medical record have long been recognized as easy pickings for scammers who hack into health provider or insurance company computer systems, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“Every institution in this country is moving to get the Social Security number off their documents and out of their records,” he said. “I simply do not understand the delay [within CMS].”
Among those testifying at the hearing was Betty Balderston, statewide coordinator of the Maine Medicare Senior Patrol, a network of volunteers who provide outreach, education and counseling to Medicare beneficiaries in Maine.
“Scam artists are always ready to take advantage of people in every state in this country, especially vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities,” she said. “They are experts at gaining trust and stealing money and benefits from unsuspecting victims.”
The Medicare Senior Patrol program is funded through the U.S. Administration on Aging.
Collins said CMS officials have continued to “drag their feet” in making the change, even as other complex public agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department, have already adopted new systems. Large private entities such as health insurance companies, universities and many state-level agencies have made the transition as well, she said.
Congress this year enacted legislation that prohibits the use of the Social Security number on the Medicare card and establishes a $219,000,000 fund to help pay for the transition to a new system. Still, said Sean Cavanaugh, deputy administrator and director of the Center for Medicare, it will be 2019 before the agency can make an across-the-board change.
The delay, Cavanaugh said, is necessary to adapt multiple systems within CMS, to align with medical providers and other external partners and to develop and launch a widespread educational program to prepare beneficiaries for the change.
In response, Collins urged Cavanaugh to begin the process sooner, starting with next year’s new beneficiaries. That approach would not require a big educational push, she said, while immediately limiting the number of enrollees whose Social Security number is put at risk.
Collins admonished Cavanaugh that the committee members were “frustrated with the slow pace” of the changeover and suggested an incremental approach would be well received.