How to Protect Your Medicare Cards from Loss or Theft

By Patricia Barry

Copyright © 2015 AARP. All rights reserved.

How do you prevent your Medicare card from being lost or stolen, and why is this important? If you’re observant (and of course you are!), you’ll notice that your Medicare ID number is exactly the same as your Social Security number (SSN). And yet the official messages you receive when your respective ID cards arrive in the mail are quite different:

  • Social Security: “Keep your card in a safe place to prevent loss or theft. DO NOT CARRY IT WITH YOU!”

  • Medicare: “Carry your card with you when you are away from home.”

Hmm — totally conflicting instructions in regard to the same ID number! Still, this situation is far from funny. The reason for Social Security’s forthright warning is the fact that stealing SSNs is the easiest way for criminals to commit identity theft, an especially vicious form of fraud that snared more than 13 million victims in 2013. The reason for Medicare’s instruction to keep your card with you is the fact that your card is proof of health insurance.

Consumer groups, many official bodies, and even a presidential commission have called for Medicare to issue ID numbers that are different from SSNs. Other government health systems — such as those run by Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense — have begun using different ID numbers or are in the process of changing. For years, Medicare resisted. But in April 2015, Congress passed a law that ordered Medicare to start the process of removing SSNs from Medicare cards and substituting different numbers. The law requires all cards issued to new beneficiaries to carry the new numbers within four years, and allows a further four years for existing cards to be changed. (Note: Other cards — Part D, Medicare Advantage, and Medigap membership cards — don’t use SSNs as ID numbers.)

While your Medicare card still carries your SSN, how can you protect it against loss or theft? The Privacy Rights Clearing House, a national consumer resource on identity theft, suggests the following: Photocopy your Medicare card and cut it down to wallet size. On the photocopy, ink out or cut out the last four digits of the SSN. Then carry the photocopy with you rather than the actual card.

The photocopy solution isn’t perfect. You’ll most probably need to show your original card the first time you visit a doctor or other health care provider. You can memorize the last four digits of your SSN, but what if your memory deserts you or you’re actually unconscious at the critical time (for example, on being taken to the emergency room)?

Still, these scenarios aren’t likely to happen often and maybe never will. Hospital staff members would treat you in an emergency, regardless of seeing your actual card. They’d know from the photocopy that you’re a Medicare beneficiary — especially from the part that shows you’re covered by Part A, Part B, or both — and they should be able to confirm that status if necessary by calling Medicare or Social Security.