Urgent care center operators need to take notice of added restrictions regarding a patient's Social Security Number when processing billing or other paperwork.
Across the country, states have taken steps to restrict the mailing of any records containing that nine-digit identifier. In total, 17 states do not allow the mailing of SSNs, according to the website consumersunion.org. The intent is to help prevent identity theft, which is a fast-growing crime in the U.S.
A person’s Social Security number has evolved into a near-universal identifier by public and private entities, making it a valuable target for identity thieves. When originally created in 1936, the Social Security Number was a nine-digit account number assigned by the federal government for the purpose of administering Social Security laws and tracking earnings. The use of SSNs was extended over time. For example, Congress authorized the IRS to use SSNs as taxpayer identification numbers.
Penalties for mailing a record, such as an urgent care bill, that contains a Social Security Number vary by state. In Michigan the violation of the SSN mailing prohibition is a misdemeanor and could result in a fine of $1,000 or civil action to recover damages. In New York, a single violation may result in a $1,000 fine, but multiple offenses could net $100,000 in penalties.
To comply with these laws, urgent care centers will likely need to create alternate identification numbers for patients and to remove SSNs from correspondence, claims forms, and statements. The center may also need to reprogram computer systems to create alternate identifiers instead of references to SSNs.
It’s important you audit the current urgent care billing process at your center to check on how and where SSNs are being used in patient records.
“Realistically, it will take decades to cycle the SSN out of healthcare,” says the American Health Information Management Association, or AHIMA, on its website. But the group offers several “best practice” suggestions to limit use of SSNs.
- If your organization is not currently using SSNs for identification purposes, don’t start now. Opt for a unique patient ID number instead.
- If you are identifying patients by SSN, consider a long-term conversion plan to eliminate the collection and use of those numbers. In the short term, make sure the center does not mail out paperwork with the Social Security Number if you’re in a state with laws prohibiting that practice.
- Also, organizations that use the SSN for patient identification should limit its display on screens and documents. Only display the number when necessary for the course of business, and use the minimum number of digits necessary, "X-ing" out the others.
Also, ensure the practice management system in your urgent care is compliant with the laws and offers you the flexibility to adjust correspondence protocol.