In today’s environment of rampant identity theft and data breaches, many organizations are reevaluating what patient data they truly need to collect and store in order to perform their day-to-day operations. One such piece of information that is under the microscope is Social Security Numbers (SSNs). The reason that SSNs are under scrutiny today, is because the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is currently issuing new Medicare cards which replace the SSN-based Health Insurance Claim Number (HICN) with a new Medicare Beneficiary Identifier (MBI). Along with this change, you have most likely seen the headlines and articles which quotes CMS Administrator, Seema Verma as saying, “We’re taking this step to protect our seniors from the fraudulent use of SSNs, which can lead to identity theft and illegal use of Medicare benefits.” These two facts taken out of context have led many to believe that utilizing SSNs in healthcare is toxic.
What we need to understand though, is that it was not CMS’s use of SSNs that caused issues, but the way in which they utilized them. CMS’s choice to openly display the HICN/SSN on the front of all Medicare cards, a card which many seniors keep in the front of their wallet inadvertently displaying their SSN throughout the day to any number of strangers, caused the issues and the potential for identify theft. In fact, according to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), “For more than a decade, we and other Federal agencies recommended taking SSNs off of Medicare cards, to limit identity theft and Medicare fraud against seniors.” I will point out that the OIG recommended removing SSNs from the Medicare cards, not eliminating the use of them.
SSNs play a vital role in correctly identifying U.S. citizens and in healthcare, your patients. This becomes especially important as you consider the back-end of your revenue cycle process or more specifically, self-pay collections. The ability to correctly identify the appropriate patient while collecting self-pay balances reduces cost and increases collection rates while minimizing exposure to litigation. SSNs are required for many of the processes that your self-pay vendors utilize. When you neglect to provide that information, your vendors are forced to rely on less accurate processes like matches based on name and date of birth. Now if you consider that according to Ancestry.com there are 38,313 James Smith’s, 34,810 Michael Smith’s, and 32,092 Maria Garcia’s in the U.S., the likelihood of getting the wrong match with only a name and date of birth exists. Having a wrong match can lead to, in the best case, an uncollectable account or poor patient experience. In the worst case, litigation.
The following are just a few examples of the processes that Americollect utilizes which require SSNs. Because these searches require the SSN, we are unable to perform them for organizations not providing it.
• Known Litigant Search – Identifies patients whom frequently sue collection agencies. These accounts are handled by specialists in this area reducing the likelihood of future litigation.
• Title 19 Search – Identifies patients whom fall under Title 19.
• TRIP (Tax Refund Intercept) Search – For states which offer this program, enables garnishment of tax refunds to pay outstanding medical bills.
• Credit Reporting – A SSN is now required in order to report on credit files.
• Insurance Eligibility Verification – When a potential insurance carrier is identified for an account, eligibility is validated before the client is notified, reducing the labor and cost for our clients.
• Presumptive Eligibility – For organizations that wish to implement a Presumptive Eligibility program, Americollect can help. Our account searches provide the due diligence necessary to score and identify accounts which would fall under presumptive eligibility. This process requires a SSN in order to be successful.
The following procedures do not require a SSN but are vastly more accurate when one is provided.
• Guarantor Level Grouping – Americollect groups all incoming accounts at the Guarantor level. This reduces the number of calls and correspondence that a household receives, greatly improving patient satisfaction and collection rates. If SSNs are not provided, this matching is not as accurate resulting in many accounts not being combined and patients receiving multiple phone calls and statements.
• Bankruptcy Search – Bankruptcy searches can be performed without a SSN; however, they are significantly less accurate resulting in an increased litigation rate.
• Deceased Search – Deceased/Probate searches can be performed without a SSN; however, they are significantly less accurate resulting in an increased litigation rate.
• Skip Tracing – When skip tracing, use of the SSN provides a significantly better chance of locating a correct address and phone number.
Now that you understand why a SSN is important to your self-pay process, we should also discuss your staff’s largest barrier to getting it – the patient. As identity theft has grown across the nation, the public has become educated on the dangers of providing their SSN. As a result, your staff may encounter push-back from your patients when requesting this information. Two approaches that we have seen work well in this discussion with the patient are as follows:
• Privacy – To protect your privacy, we utilize your SSN to validate your identity when speaking with you. Your SSN is one of the only numbers that you, and you alone know, allowing us to verify that you are you before discussing your sensitive personal health information.
• Credit – We need your SSN because we are extending you credit for our services. Once your portion of the bill comes due, we need to make sure that we can collect on it. This is just like when you apply for a loan or a credit card with a bank and your SSN is the first number that they ask for.
By providing your self-pay vendors with the correct SSN for your accounts, you ensure accurate, timely, and effective debtor identification while reducing cost, increasing collection rates, and minimizing exposure to litigation. You should also remember that your self-pay vendors are trusted partners of your organization whom you rely on to protect the PHI of your patients. If you cannot trust them to protect your patient’s SSNs, should you really be trusting them with your PHI?