YAKIMA – With identity theft on the upswing, Aram Langhans thought he was simply being prudent when he asked the Yakima Heart Center to remove his Social Security number from its files.
“They had my insurance card and my driver’s license. What else did they need?” said Langhans, a retired public school teacher insured by Group Health.
Langhans said he was initially hooked up to a portable heart monitor that he was to wear for 24 hours, but the disagreement over his Social Security number prompted upper-level personnel to change their minds. He said moments after the device was attached, he was sent to a restroom to remove it and turned away.
Shawnie Haas, administrator of the Heart Center, an independent outpatient group practice, declined to discuss the incident. But she said in an e-mail statement that the practice protects patients’ privacy.
“The Yakima Heart Center is careful to collect data pertinent to ensuring accuracy of our patient’s medical record. Routine information collected for all patients includes name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, gender, and other specific information that helps us verify that individual’s identity and insurance enrollment or coverage data. We are careful to maintain confidentiality of all patient information in our system.”
According to state and federal regulators, private insurance companies have moved away from using Social Security numbers for patient identification. But health care providers in the Yakima Valley say they routinely collect them as “backup” in the event that patients’ insurance doesn’t pay the claim.
There are critics of the practice.
The Social Security Administration and the state Attorney General both say that although health care providers can refuse service if patients don’t provide the number, patients should be wary of such requests.
“They will want to ask why the number is needed, how it’s going to be used and the implications if they refuse,” said Cynthia Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration in Flint, Mich.
Kristin Alexander, spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna, who has made identity theft a cornerstone of his consumer protection division, said Langhans did the right thing.
“Social Security numbers have been compromised by employees in the health care sector and other industries,” Alexander said. “Anything a company can do to reduce access, we strongly encourage.”
Exceptions exist. Alexander noted that customers have to give their Social Security numbers to credit-card companies and other institutions performing a credit check. Plus, the number appears on government-issued Medicare cards.
Aram Langhans’ primary-care doctor sent the 58-year-old Yakima resident to the Heart Center so cardiologists could check out an irregular heartbeat. He was to wear the monitor at home for a day and then return it so the results could be analyzed.
Checking in on Monday for the appointment to get the monitor, Langhans’ wife, Marjorie, noticed that his Social Security number was listed on a printout that office personnel gave them to review for accuracy.
The Langhanses are sticklers for privacy, so they asked the records clerk to remove the number. They said they were told it was office policy to require the number.
Even though Langhans was a new patient at the Heart Center, the Langhanses explained that in more than 20 years with Group Health, the carrier had never refused to pay a claim. According to the Langhanses, the office staff relented, saying if the claim came back unpaid, the Langhans would have to deal with it.
“We agreed to that and Aram went and had his chest shaved and the monitor was attached,” said Marjorie Langhans.
But as they were leaving the clinic, the Langhanses said they were stopped at the door, called into an office and told that Langhan had to remove the heart monitor. He did so and they left.
Marjorie Langhans called Group Health and filed a complaint.
Group Health spokesman Mike Foley said health providers that contract with Group Health “have some leeway” with regard to how they manage their billing systems, which could include collecting Social Security numbers.
But, Foley said, “No one should be denied care over a paperwork issue like that.”
Aram Langhan said he recently visited the emergency room at Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital because of an eye injury. Staff asked for his Social Security number but when he declined, they didn’t demand it or refuse to treat him, he said.
Nicole Donegan, a hospital spokeswoman, said Memorial uses Social Security numbers as a backup in the event there are problems with the insurance. “We ask for it, but we don’t require it,” Donegan said.
Memorial’s member clinics, like Cornerstone Medical, ask for the number as a precaution against mixing up patients with the same name or similar birth dates.
“We ask for it, but it’s totally voluntary,” said Merle Wolf, Cornerstone practice administrator. “We use it if we have it to make sure we don’t have the wrong person.”
Yakima Regional Medical and Cardiac Center also requests Social Security numbers.
“It is a required question for our admitting staff to ask, but if somebody doesn’t have one or chooses not to give it, we don’t and can’t deny them treatment,” said Veronica Peery, spokeswoman.
The Langhanses aren’t sure what to do next, but they will continue to guard their Social Security numbers. Their nephew’s identity was taken from a credit application for an apartment rental and was used for everything from credit cards to cell phone contracts. It took their nephew a year to straighten out the mess.
Ever since, they’ve been vigilant about protecting their privacy. “I’ve just become very fussy about it,” Marjorie Langhan said.