Dear Savvy Senior,
I just turned 65 and received my Medicare card. I see that the ID number on my card is the same as my Social Security number, and on the back of the card it tells me I need to carry it with me at all times. What can I do to protect myself from identify theft if my purse and Medicare card get stolen?
Many people new to Medicare are surprised to learn that the ID number on their Medicare card is identical to their Social Security number (SSN). After all, we're constantly warned not to carry our SSN around with us, because if it gets lost or stolen, the result could be identity theft.
But the Medicare ID is more than an identifier. It's proof of insurance. Beneficiaries need to show their Medicare card at the doctor's office and the hospital in order to have Medicare pay for treatment.
Over the years, many consumer advocates have called for a new form of Medicare identification. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which administers Medicare, also acknowledges the problem, but so far nothing has been done.
One of the main reasons is because it would cost an estimated $255 to $317 million to fix it. And that's just the direct cost to the federal government. It doesn't include the expense for physicians and other healthcare providers to adjust their systems or the cost to the states.
Other government health systems, like the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense, have already begun using ID numbers that are different from SSNs, but no one knows when Medicare will follow suit.
In the meantime, here are some tips offered by various consumer advocate groups that can help keep your Medicare card safe and out of the hands of fraudsters.
Protect Your Card
For starters, AARP suggests that you simply don't carry your Medicare card at all, because it's not necessary. Most healthcare providers already have their patients in their electronic systems and know how to bill you.
But if you really don't feel comfortable not having it with you, then the Privacy Rights Clearing House, a national consumer resource on identity theft recommends that you make a photocopy of your card and cut it down to wallet size. Then use scissors to cut out the last four digits of your SSN, or take a black marker and cross them out, and carry that instead.
You will, however, need your actual Medicare card with you the first time you visit a new health care provider, who will likely want to make a photocopy of it for their files.
If you're worried that you'll need your card in an emergency situation in order to get care, you should know that emergency personnel cannot refuse you care until you show an insurance card. Although you'll need to come up with billing information before leaving a hospital, that doesn't mean you won't receive care.
Lost or Stolen Cards
If your Medicare card does happen to get lost or stolen, you can replace it by calling Social Security at 800-772-1213. You can also apply for a new card online at ssa.gov/medicarecard or go to your local Social Security office.
If your Medicare card has been lost or stolen, you will need to watch out for Medicare fraud. You can do this by checking your quarterly Medicare summary notices for services or supplies you did not receive. If you spot anything suspicious or wrong, call the Inspector General's fraud hotline at 800-447-8477.
If you need help identifying Medicare fraud, contact your state Senior Medicare Patrol program.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.