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What to do if your doctor asks for your Social Security number

How to protect your privacy and still get treatment

Published: March 13, 2015 04:45 PM

In the wake of the massive Anthem Healthcare security breach earlier this year, when hackers grabbed the personal information of some 80 million Americans, you may be more hesitant about giving your Social Security number to hospitals and health care providers.

That’s wise, say privacy experts like Pam Dixon, executive director of the non-profit World Privacy Forum. “Having Social Security numbers at the doctors’ office is a data breach risk, and it’s one that’s increasing,” she says.

Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America, an association of non-profit consumer organizations, agrees. “I do not want my Social Security number being stored at a doctor’s office, not in today’s largely paper world of records and not in the world that’s coming, with electronic patient records. I don’t see any need for that information to be collected and retained by a health care provider and I don’t want it to be.”

But what if you’ve tried to keep your Social Security number out of your doctor’s hands—by leaving any space for your Social on medical forms blank, for example—and a health care provider, doctor’s office receptionist, office manager or hospital employee insists? Here’s our advice.

Know the law

If you are enrolled in Medicare you almost always have to give your Social Security number to your doctor or hospital, since your identification includes your Social Security number. So your doctor or hospital will need that information to get paid by Medicare.

Note that other government-run health insurance programs, including Medicaid, TRICARE, and Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, used to also use Social Security numbers for identification, but have now switched to other methods. If you are enrolled in one of those programs and still have an old card with your Social on it, contact the agency and ask for a new one that does not rely on that.

Most other health insurers don’t use Social Security numbers to identify you. But if your insurer does, then you too will have to share your Social Security Number with your doctor and other health care providers. “If the office cannot conduct billing, they’re not going to see you,” Dixon says.

But some doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers ask for your Social Security numbers even when it’s not needed. In that situation, you are under no obligation to provide it—though they’re also not obligated to take you as a patient, either.

 “It is not unusual to be asked for a Social Security number, but it is considered best practice for hospitals and doctors not to ask for a Social Security number,” Dixon notes. “Still, not all health care providers and hospitals go by best practices.”

Visit our extensive guide to Internet security for more safety tips and tactics.

How to just say no

If you find yourself in that situation—being asked to provide your Social even though you aren’t on Medicare or you health insurer doesn’t require it—politely push back. Say you’re hesitant to share your Social because you’re worried about identity theft. Ask why they need the number, how it will be used, how they will protect it, and what the consequences will be if you don’t hand it over. “Often, the people you’re dealing with at the counter at the doctor’s office have no idea why it’s needed,” says Grant.

If you’re told it’s so they can track you down in case of billing problems offer an alternative, such as the last four numbers of your Social. “That and your name are usually enough for them to find you,” Dixon says.

You can also offer another way to contact you, such as your cell phone. But Dixon cautions about sharing other information, like your drivers license. “You want to keep as many of the numbers that define you out of circulation,” she says.

In some cases your health care provider may say that they need your Social simply because they have a field in their computerized medical records that must be filled in. In that case, ask them to fill it in with all zeroes.

If they continue to object, ask to speak with the doctor and repeat your concerns.

If that still doesn’t work, you may simply need to find another physician or facility. “I know it’s not easy to change one’s doctor, but people need to stand firm,” says Grant. “It’s just too sensitive a piece of information.”

—Diane Umansky

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