How Medicare puts you at risk for identity theft

I’m a few years out from being eligible for Medicare — I turned 61 in August. Because I’ve done a lot of reporting about health care and health policy, I know a little more than some people about the program, which pays essential health care costs for about 55 million Americans, including those 65 and older and some with disabilities.

One thing I didn’t know until I wrote a story this week is that Medicare still uses the Social Security number to enroll beneficiaries. If you’re a beneficiary, your Social Security number is prominently displayed on the front of your Medicare card. If your card is ever lost or stolen, or just easy to see, your personal and medical identity is at risk.

That Medicare Claim Number? It's your Social Security number, an easy target for identity thieves.

That Medicare Claim Number? It’s your Social Security number, an easy target for identity thieves.

Not only that, but when hackers break into a health care computer system, which seems to happen with some regularity these days, your Social Security number is easy to steal. This puts seniors — anyone with Medicare — at heightened risk for identity theft. Criminals can use the Social Security number to drain your bank accounts, obtain credit in your name and even access health care services.

So it makes sense that Congress has directed the Medicare program to come up with some other system for identifying beneficiaries. Other big federal agencies have already made the change, including the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Medicare has lagged behind, but is under renewed pressure now to get the job done.

Many people, including me, point to Medicare as an example of a single-payer, government administered health plan that might, someday, be the model for a national health service in the United States. But Medicare is far from perfect. Like any government bureaucracy, or any big health care organization, it is  a complicated system of options and provisions, caveats and counterintuitive regulations.

It’s no wonder that many Americans, when they turn 65 and go to enroll, encounter a dauntingly steep learning curve. Should you enroll in “traditional” Medicare or a managed-care option? Which prescription plan is best for you? What if you don’t need a prescription plan at all? How much does it all cost? (No, Medicare isn’t free.)

Fortunately, there is one-on-one guidance available through Maine’s Area Agencies on Aging, which provide a remarkable range of services to Mainers 50 and older, regardless of income. Call  1-877-353-3771 to connect with the office nearest to you.

Meg Haskell

About Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at