Dear Consumer Ed:

My doctor's office is now requiring me to provide my Social Security Number in order to make an appointment.  I don't want to give out that information, and my insurance company told me all the office needs is my name, birth date and insurance policy number.  Is it legal for doctors' offices to require my Social Security Number? What are my rights?

Consumer Ed Says:

The Social Security Number (SSN) was created in 1936 for the purposes of tracking an individual's earnings and monitoring Social Security benefits paid to that individual.  Over time, the SSN has become a tool for identification and authentication in both the government and the private sector, since it is a fixed identifier that is unique to each person.  Because organizations within the private sector have increasingly used SSNs in business and record keeping systems, the availability and demand for the numbers by identity thieves has also grown.  In response to rising identity theft concerns, many insurers have discontinued the use of SSNs as policy holder identification numbers.  In today's world, where it seems like identity theft is continuously on the rise, people must be careful in freely giving out their SSN.  It is always best to be cautious and ask "why?"

So, are you legally required to provide your SSN to your medical provider?  The answer is no. There are certain organizations that do require it, such as the IRS (for tax returns and federal loans), employers (for wage and tax reporting purposes), banks (for certain monetary transactions), and states (for welfare benefits, government health care plans, such as Medicaid, etc.), just to name a few.  However, medical providers are not such organizations, and since you know your insurance provider uses insurance policy numbers instead of SSNs, you know the doctor's office isn't using it as a requirement of your insurer.  Therefore, you don't have to voluntarily provide your SSN.

However, there are no laws that make it illegal for a doctor's office to require your SSN to schedule an appointment.  They're permitted to use your number internally for identification verification or administrative purposes; one such purpose may be to aid in the bill collection process.  If the doctor has a patient's social security number, then it's easier to locate that patient and collect money owed; likewise, when a patient is deceased, having a social security number may make it easier for the medical provider to collect on unpaid bills.  Keep in mind that if you refuse to provide your SSN, the office can also refuse to schedule your appointment or provide services to you.

That being said, providing your SSN is completely voluntary, even when you are directly asked for it.  If you're asked for your SSN and are uncomfortable doing so, you should ask the following questions to help you determine whether to surrender your private information:  (1) Why do you need it?  (2) How will you use it?  (3) What law requires me to provide it? and (4) What are the consequences if I refuse?

Depending on the reason provided, see if a different type of information would serve the same purpose, and provide that information instead.  For example, if the office needs your SSN for identification purposes, offer your driver's license number; or if the office needs it in the unfortunate event that you die and they need to collect money for unpaid bills, then provide the name and contact information of a person that knows your SSN and can provide it in such event. You can also try explaining to the office personnel that providing your SSN puts you at risk for identity theft and you aren't comfortable giving it out.  None of this guarantees that they'll agree to accept an alternative to your SSN.  If they won't, and insist that you provide your SSN to schedule an appointment, then you might want to consider finding another office that won't ask for such private and sensitive information before you've even been seen.

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