Sharing Your Social Security Number With Your Doctor

Why Sharing the Information Is Not Always Necessary

woman filling out forms at doctor's office
Heath Korvola/DigitalVision/Getty Images

It is common for health care providers to ask you for your Social Security number when you are seeking medical care. In most cases, people will do so without complaint, but is it really necessary at a time when the risk of identity theft is high?

Understanding the FTC Red Flag Rule

The fact is that, until recently, health care providers fell under what is known as the FTC Red Flag Rule.

The rule was established in 2007 by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as a means to curb identity theft by requiring all creditors to collect Social Security numbers and other pieces of personal information. Doctors and other health professionals were among those required to comply due to ever-increasing rates of medical identity theft.

Almost immediately upon its passage, the ruling was challenged by health providers who argued that they should not be considered creditors in the same way that credit card or mortgage companies are. It was an argument that eventually paid off. Less than a year after the ruling was implemented, Congress decided to revise the regulation and remove health professionals from the list.

As such, while doctors may still ask for your Social Security number, it is not at the behest of the law but rather a directive of the doctor's office itself.

Why Doctors Want Social Security Numbers

Doctors ask for Social Security numbers for one reason and one reason alone: the guarantee of payment.

The simple fact is that a lot of people in the United States do not pay their bills, and doctors often have little recourse if they are not able to track that person down. As the one universal identifier of all Americans, Social Security numbers provide doctors the last-ditch means to collect on a debt if a person up and disappears.

It is as not as small of a problem as some might think. According to a report from the American Hospital Association, over $40 billion dollars in hospital bills are unpaid each year. This doesn't include private practice physicians or other forms of non-hospital-based care. It is an enormous problem that only serves to drive up healthcare costs nationwide.

Moreover, it is not just doctors who are asking for these numbers. Medicare, Medicaid, the Veteran's Administration, and TriCare all require Social Security numbers in order to process reimbursement requests. It has become a common practice in the U.S. and one with which patients are all but forced to comply.

Why You Don't Need to Share Your Number

From the consumer end, it is not unreasonable to be worried about sharing your Social Security number with anyone, even a trusted family doctor. Each year, over two million people are victims of medical identity fraud in the U.S., oftentimes because a person's Social Security and insurance information aren't properly secured by a medical practice.

If you feel uncomfortable about sharing your Social Security number, there is every chance your doctor will tell you that it is required by law (it isn't) or that they need it to secure payment.

If you have insurance, that is also not true

In the end, if the office accepts your insurance plan, the insurance company already has your Social Security number on file. Under the FTC Red Flag Rule, health insurers are required to collect this information and have the means to find you if you default on a payment.

On the other hand, if you don't have insurance and are not paying cash upfront, it may be reasonable for a doctor to ask. While you can still refuse, so can the doctor.

Under the law, doctors cannot refuse to treat a person for ethnic, racial, or religious reasons. Nor can a doctor discriminate based on a person's sex unless the sex is relevant to the physician's practice.

Outside of these protected areas, physicians have great latitude in refusing to accept persons as patients. This includes their policies on payment.

What You Can Do

If you are in a position where you do not want to share your Social Security number but still want the services of a doctor, there are several things you can do:

  • Ask the office manager to call the FTC at 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357) if they erroneously believe that it is required by law.
  • Ask if there are other pieces of information they might accept in place of your Social Security number.
  • Offer to pay cash in advance.

In the end, you need to weigh your choices and decide what is more important to you: the doctor's services or your right to privacy. It is a choice only you can make.

Sources:

American Hospital Association. " Uncompensated Hospital Care Costs Fact Sheet." Chicago, Illinois; issued January 2013.

American Medical Association. "Protect your patients, protect your practice: What you need to know about the Red Flags Rule." Chicago, Illinois; issued 2011.

HIPAA Journal. "Ponemon Institute Publishes Fifth Annual Study on Medical Identity Theft." Sherman Oaks, California; published February 23, 2015.