Medical Identity Theft Can Happen to You

Last Updated Jun 17, 2009 9:09 AM EDT

Over the weekend I saw a story about medical identity theft in The New York Times. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it ever since. Unlike regular identity theft, this type of fraud could put your health in jeopardy and seems nearly impossible to prevent.

So what is medical identity theft? According to The New York Times' Tara Parker-Pope, the crime can take many forms.

"Sometimes, an individual's name and social security number is used for another patient to receive expensive care, and the bills may show up on your credit report. Stolen insurance information may allow someone to receive care on your policy. More common is the case when medical information is stolen by hospital or lab facility insiders, who sell the information to be used for fraudulent claims."
We're all pretty familiar with regular identity theft. Who hasn't had his credit card number stolen or had someone else open up a fraudulent account in their name? When this happens, we might feel a bit violated, but after some annoying red tape, the problem usually gets sorted out. But with medical identity theft the stakes are much higher.

Imagine, as The New York Times article points out, that your medical records get commingled with someone who is impersonating you. Should you get into a car accident you might get a transfusion with the wrong type of blood - a blood type that matches the fake you.

Or, let's say you get diagnosed with a costly ailment like cancer. While you might think you'll be okay because you have health insurance, it turns out that someone using your insurance has already reached your carrier's lifetime limit for coverage. Now you won't be able to afford the necessary treatments until you clear the confusion up.

With regular identity theft, we're all told we can just shred out credit card statements and protect ourselves. We can even put an alert on our credit with the credit bureaus so we're notified every time someone tries to open a new account in our name. But I just can't see how you can protect yourself from medical identity theft.

Here's the problem. Every time you fill out a new patient or medical claim form you're asked for your social security number. Now you've got underpaid, back office workers with access to your most personal information. While most are trust worthy, all you need is one person who is going through some financial turmoil of his or her own to get tempted to sell that information.

Back in 2007, the last time federal data on this crime was collected, 250,000 people were victims of medical identity theft. I can only imagine the number is much higher today when the temptation to sell personal information is even higher due to the recession.

So what can you do? You can ask to see your medical records to check for inconsistencies. Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) you are entitled to a copy of your medical records. You can also monitor your medical claims online through your insurance carrier. And for treatments that don't go through your insurance company, you can look out for collection notices on your regular credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com.

Has your personal medical information been compromised? Are you now worried about medical identity theft? Please share your thoughts on how patients can protect themselves.

Lubbock Heart Hospital image by brykmntra, CC 2.0.
  • Stacey Bradford

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