New Medicare card

Nearly 70,000 residents of Northwest Missouri and Northeast Kansas get hospital and medical benefits through Medicare, with roughly 49,000 taking advantage of the program’s prescription drug coverage.

Those participants, and about 58 million others nationwide, will have extra protection from identity theft beginning next year.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services have revealed a newly designed Medicare card aimed at helping their owners avoid fraud. Social Security numbers, long a feature on the cards, will be replaced by randomly assigned identifiers mixing numerals and letters.

About time, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill said.

The Democratic lawmaker, formerly the ranking member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, began calling for the removal of Social Security numbers from the cards in 2015. She noted that warning signs about possible identify thefts from Medicare cards had been seen a decade earlier.

“After years of inaction and bureaucratic hand-wringing, it’s about time this simple change is made to better protect Missouri’s seniors from financial fraud and identity theft,” McCaskill said in praising the new design this week.

A former Missouri auditor, McCaskill has a background in investigating scams and advocating for consumer protections. Most recently, she joined a bipartisan group of 35 other senators in calling for investigations regarding a data breach at Equifax that compromised the personal information, including Social Security numbers, of as many as 143 million Americans.

“Now more than ever, we have to be vigilant about protecting our personal information, and there are easy, commonsense places where the government can help us do that,” the Missourian said.

The new cards will be sent to Medicare beneficiaries in April. In the meantime, Medicare officials have begun an educational campaign called “Guard Your Card,” intent on keeping identity thieves away.

“Con artists, they’ll try anything to get your Medicare card number,” said a commercial that began Thursday. One woman in the ad says, “Nobody gets my number, unless I know they should have it.”

Handbooks for the coming year of Medicare benefits have been sent to beneficiaries throughout September. The new design will be featured in the book.

“The goal of the initiative to remove Social Security numbers from Medicare cards is to help prevent fraud, combat identify theft and safeguard taxpayer dollars,” Medicare and Medicaid Administrator Seema Verma said.

In 20 Missouri and Kansas counties covered by the News-Press, 69,884 residents were enrolled for hospital and medical coverage in 2016, according to the program’s Office of Enterprise Data and Analytics. Prescription drug enrollees for last year totaled 49,210 in those counties.

In Buchanan County, there were 17,719 Medicare medical enrollees and 12,521 people signed up for drug benefits.

Ken Newton can be reached at ken.newton@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.