There is one solution to fighting Medicare fraud that most lawmakers can agree on: Remove seniors' Social Security numbers from their Medicare cards to stop identity theft.
But they can't agree with federal agencies on how to pay for it.
The House Ways and Means Committee held a meeting Wednesday to discuss the best way to protect seniors from theft and abuse. Two different solutions have been proposed: an outright requirement that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services take the numbers off of the cards, and an alternative to the current cards — a "smart card," if you will — that contains the data securely.
Yet neither has been enacted. Why?
Money. To change the current system, which services roughly 50 million seniors, CMS would need a hefty sum. There's the overhead of producing new cards and, if the smart cards were adopted, educating seniors and physicians about how to use their new pieces of plastic.
"While [CMS] agrees that removing the Social Security numbers from the Medicare card is an appropriate step to reducing the risk of identity theft, CMS cannot make a decision to proceed unilaterally," a CMS official said in an email. "CMS, the Social Security Administration, and the Railroad Retirement Board must all agree to proceed with the initiative, and to consider all existing workloads and priorities in light of the funding that is available for such a major project."
The Government Accountability Office is reviewing the smart-card proposal — retiring Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach's Medicare Common Access Card Act — and is expected to complete its analysis of the administrative and cost burden to enact the program by the end of the year.
It's not clear the GAO report will resolve the disagreement over funding for removing Social Security numbers from cards, though. According to an aide for Republican Rep. Sam Johnson, who is cosponsoring the bipartisan bill to remove Social Security numbers from the current cards, CMS wants an appropriation but Congress thinks the agency can carry out the change in a fiscally responsible fashion using its own resources.
"CMS has been working with the committee to find a mutually acceptable solution," a spokesman said in an email.