Columns

Here's Scary: Your Social Security Number Is Just a Click Away

By: Nancy Smith | Posted: January 13, 2014 3:55 AM
I Beg to Differ

Twenty-nine states have laws specifically restricting or prohibiting the collection, use or disclosure of an individual's Social Security number. Florida isn't one of them.

Oh, in 2009 the Legislature did update the Sunshine Law with Florida Statute 119.071 to protect your Social Security number and other private information, but the law relates only to state agencies and it's dripping in gray area. Lines in the statute like this bring on privacy neurosis: "Information made exempt ... may be disclosed to another governmental entity if disclosure is necessary for the receiving entity to perform its duties and responsibilities ..."

No wonder the Sunshine State has the highest per capita rate of identity-theft complaints in the nation, ahead of Georgia and California. Read "My Social Security Number -- How Secure Is It?"

But the reality is worse. Even if the state did all it could to protect your privacy, the federal Affordable Care Act -- Obamacare -- would override it.  Your personal health information -- Social Security number included -- is being put into electronic format without your permission and anyone can get to it. It's probably already on some website.

Snafus involving the mandated switch from paper to electronic medical records have been happening for the last few years as the Affordable Care Act geared up. Horror stories -- like the one about a California orthopedic surgeon whose medical-records software provider sold his patients' records to anybody who wanted them -- are more common than most people realize. Read the incredible story.

"This is a nightmare. It's nothing we've ever seen before in medicine," said patient privacy-rights advocate Dr. Deborah Peel.

Dr. Deborah Peel

Dr. Deborah Peel

Peel said many patients and doctors don't know the federal government quietly eliminated patients' privacy rights for electronic records. "It's a free-for-all," she said. "It's the Wild West. Today there are over 4 million different kinds of organizations and companies that can see and use our medical records without our knowledge, without our permission and we can't refuse."

Peel said we can actually thank Healthcare.gov, the Obamacare sign-up website, for waking us up and making us think about what happens to our personal health information on a big bureaucratic website.

All of a sudden, Americans get it, she said -- and the Obama administration isn't pleased at having to deal with another strain of negativity in the rollout of its health plan. The government, remember, spent some $2 billion just to encourage the adoption of electronic health records.

Peel, a physician and probably the most renowned national speaker on health privacy, believes Healthcare.gov will amount to government surveillance of all health information unless some mobile "app" is developed so patients can access and control the dispersal of their own data, with Social Security numbers at the top of the list.

"Health information is the most valuable personal data about you, bar none," Peel said. "We (at Patientprivacyrights.org) tremendously support technology, but technology that's smart, that serves you and does what you expect -- that doesn't serve hidden industries that steal data or (is subject to) government surveillance. Government technology could put us in much better control of our information.

"We need to develop a mobile 'app' that would let you find out what happens to your information We need new technology and privacy protections to be put in place." See Peel's remarks on Patientprivacyrights.org.

If somebody steals your credit card, it's a hassle. And it will take a few minutes on the phone with the bank to reverse any fraudulent charges. But if your identity is stolen and used for medical treatment, it could take a year or longer to undo the damage. Victims don't always find out right away what's happened and they can end up paying the imposter’s bills just to make the problem go away, potentially to the tune of $100,000 or more.

We're still waiting for 2013 figures. But we do know an average of 2 million Americans are victims of medical identity theft yearly; and in 2012, the estimated total cost of that theft, based on mean value, was something like $41 billion -- a significant increase from the $30.9 billion estimated in 2011. For individuals, the cost also has increased -- from $20,663 in 2011 to $22,346 in 2012. That's a whole lot of pain.

Last summer a South Miami Hospital worker pleaded guilty after she stole more than 800 patients' Social Security numbers and sold them to a multimillion-dollar tax fraud ring in Fort Lauderdale. It was a major bust. According to a July 15 Sun-Sentinel story, the group's ringleader was so slick and so successful that she and her co-defendants submitted $11.7 million worth of fraudulent income tax refunds, and the IRS approved $4.5 million of them.

After that incident, federal agencies like the Treasury Department and the FBI issued reminders to patients that it may not be necessary to give a Social Security number to medical providers unless that's the only way the insurance provider can distinguish them from other clients.

Pardon me, but that's horse manure. No doctor's office will see you if you don't give up your Social Security number at the desk. Try it some time. And with Obamacare -- unless Dr. Peel's cause is successful -- you'll be giving up a lot more information than that.

People often find out they're victims of medical identity theft when they're contacted by debt collectors looking to recoup a hospital’s or insurance company’s unpaid expenses.

This is a crime that's hard to stop before it happens, unlike a lot of purely financial schemes that can be nipped in the bud with free fraud alerts that trigger phone calls to potential victims when new lines of credit are opened in their names.

Right now -- until somebody can devise privacy-saving software for the new Health Information Technology -- there's only one effective method of protecting against medical schemes: monitoring your credit report for signs of unpaid medical expenses going into collections. All of the major credit-reporting agencies must provide a free credit report once a year for people who ask. 



Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. 


Comments (1)

Faith Cohen
3:12PM FEB 15TH 2014
What has happened to me is that my doctors don't listen and enter misinformation and when I correct them, they say it is too hard to change it- so it is serious to say I have diabetes, and drink four drinks a day rAther than four drinks a week ! Are their ways to stop the sloppiness- it probably is endemic, so what value is all this misinformation ? It is not progress and I don't feel comfortable being forthright with my doctor-- now what? FCohen

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