Disclosure: I have worked with Consumers Union, which is quoted in the New York Times story.
The New York Times highlights a recent report from the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General; Patrick P. O’Carroll Jr. urges Medicare to remove Social Security numbers from the program’s cards. More than 40 million people have Medicare cards. Private companies, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield replaced SSNs as identifiers on insurance cards several years ago.
From the Inspector General’s report:
Despite the increasing threat of identity theft, [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)] continued to display SSNs on identification cards it issued to Medicare beneficiaries. Displaying such information on Medicare cards unnecessarily places millions of individuals at-risk for identity theft. This is particularly troubling because CMS instructs individuals, many of whom are elderly, to carry their Medicare card with them when away from home. We do not believe a Federal agency should place more value on convenience than the security of its beneficiaries’ personal information.
The New York Times spoke with CMS about the issue:
[Charlene M. Frizzera, chief operating officer of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] said that issuing new Medicare cards would be “a huge undertaking.” The agency would need three years to plan such a move and eight more years to carry it out, she said.
Also, “If the government suddenly issued new Medicare cards or identification numbers, she said, it could startle or alarm beneficiaries. ‘We don’t want to scare them,’ Ms. Frizzera said.”
To summarize, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ reasoning against replacing the SSNs on Medicare cards is that it would be hard and such a change would scare people. One would think that fear could be mitigated by sending Medicare recipients a clearly worded letter explaining the change is intended to protect Medicare beneficiaries in the same way individuals with private health insurance are protected.