By Carol Levine
Part of the Political Issues and Policies Special Report
March 6, 2018
In these days of instant electronic communication, it is easy to forget that important information sometimes arrives the old-fashioned way — via the U.S. Postal Service. If you are a family caregiver of an older adult, it’s vital you take note of one piece of mail amid what may be a deluge of junk.
Beginning in April, and continuing for a year, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will mail new identification cards to Medicare’s 55 million beneficiaries. These cards will replace the version in effect since 1965. (Historical note: The first Medicare card was issued to former President Harry S. Truman by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the groundbreaking legislation.)
The new Medicare ID cards have only one purpose: to help prevent identity theft.
The number on the current Medicare ID card (called a Health Insurance Claim Number, or HICN) is the person’s Social Security number. This number is used not only by the Social Security Administration, but also by the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board, state Medicaid agencies, health care providers and health plans.
In the hands of an unscrupulous person, a Social Security number can open the door to all kinds of mischief and misuse. That’s why the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 required CMS to replace the old numbers with new ones and give them a new name — Medicare Beneficiary Identifier (MBI).
The new cards will be distributed to Medicare beneficiaries and to people who are eligible for Medicare through the Railroad Retirement Board’s pension plans. There is one important exception: People who are enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan (like an HMO or PPO) will continue to use the plan’s ID card as their main card for Medicare. (Those cards already have a unique ID number that is not the Social Security number.) Also, Medicare prescription drug plans will continue to assign and use their own cards.
Each new number will have 11 digits and will be assigned randomly. The new numbers are “non-intelligent,” which means that they don’t have any hidden or special meaning. They will be a combination of single-digit numbers and upper-case (capital) letters. All the letters of the alphabet will be used, except S, L, O, I, B and Z, to make the combination easier to read — if not to remember.
The new cards will be printed on regular-weight paper and will be a little smaller than the old ones — about the size of a credit card. Another change: the new cards do not indicate gender.
The first wave of mail distribution will include Middle Atlantic states such as Delaware and Maryland and western states such as California and Oregon, plus Pacific territories like Guam. That wave is scheduled to begin in April and end in June.
After June, CMS will roll out mailings to five more geographic areas. If you or your parent live in Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Puerto Rico and some other states/territories, you will be in the last group to receive the MBIs. This schedule is subject to change so check the Medicare.gov site for updates.
What do you need to do beyond checking the mail? Nothing. The old cards will still be valid for a year or more. However, health care providers must change their records. To avoid confusion, it is important to notify your doctors and other health providers when you receive the new number.
While the change in Medicare ID numbers was instituted to prevent identity theft, it has already, sadly, led to the opposite result.
Attempts to mislead Medicare beneficiaries come in many forms and no doubt even more will pop up as the cards start arriving. For now, these are the important points to remember. If you are helping an older adult, make sure he or she knows that:
There will undoubtedly be some glitches as the new system is introduced. Check the Medicare website for updates, and check your mailbox for the letter from Medicare.
Next Avenue brings you stories that are inspiring and change lives. We know that because we hear it from our readers every single day. One reader says,
"Every time I read a post, I feel like I'm able to take a single, clear lesson away from it, which is why I think it's so great."
Your generous donation will help us continue to bring you the information you care about. What story will you help make possible?