Stealing more than wallets

All of us are aware of identity theft that targets debit and credit cards, as well as bank accounts. Literally billions of dollars of losses are reported annually and the chances are good that either you, or someone close to you has been victimized by this sort of crime. But there is another version of this crime, Medical Identity Theft which is in the rise, and it is causing no end of financial problems for its victims. Worse yet, it has caused deaths.

The perpetrators gain access to certain elements of your identifying information and then uses it to obtain medical services or medications (often narcotics). This ends up with the hapless victim responsible for charges run up in their name by the perpetrator. Unlike credit card fraud which has become so routine that unless the victim is tremendously unobservant of their bank account conditions, that it can be quickly caught, the card invalidated and the victim made financially whole again. But medical theft falls into an entirely different category which leaves the victims in a limbo where they have few, if any resources to help them. Overdue account created by this fraud are often turned over to collection agencies who have a relationship with the financial holding company of a medical facility, and one in which the victim has no standing. ‘Standing’ is a legal term which means that regardless of their status as a victim, by law they cannot make any claim within the law.

Imagine someone having major surgery after stealing your personal data. Not only do you become beholden ti pay the bill, but information specific to the thief’s personal physical condition become a part of your record, and physicians use this information to design treatment (and rarely, if ever, consult with the patient to verify their recorded data.) This can easily set the victim up for unneeded treatments, improper medication, and a long list of other problems –some of these resulting in death.

Every single US state has cases of this crime on their records, so don’t think that because you might live in a small rural area that you’re immune. No one’s immune. It is true though, that state law and the general number of total medical patients can have strong bearing on the commonality of the crime. Florida has the sad distinction of being the capital of this fraud, due mostly to their highly relaxed laws regarding the dispensing of opiates like Oxycontin, a favorite among abused drugs. People both get the narcotics for their own use, but as many use the information to visit many pharmacies and small doctor offices to collect drugs for sale in a different locality or state, Bringing as much as $50 per tablet or more in some ‘markets.’

I began to look into this when I got an email from a reader who read my post regarding my own recent bout with identity theft. They explained that a thief had actually received six hundred thousand dollars worth of medical treatment, the medical community mislead as to their patients identity. This man lost his home, his car, and ended up homeless as a result of his case, and after six years still had not gotten it straightened out. In fact, he still ducks creditors trying to collect the owing half-million dollars plus. Further, save for immediate and life threatening conditions requiring an Emergency Room visit, he has been denied the various treatment he requires until the bill has been satisfied. Neither the justice system nor the medical providers will even listen to his assertions as being a victim, his protests falling on deaf ears.

He finally got a law office to take on his case pro bono (for free), but in the four months of their representation so far, have not gained him an iota of relief.

It’s disappointing that medical information, regardless of HIPAA which was enacted to counter distribution of private data, is so often treated cavalierly, making it rather simple for thieves to get hold of the information they need to present in order to get treatment or medications. Further the billing cycles in medicine are so slow and multi-layers, what with all of the divisions of care and billing created by specialization, that I can take weeks and months before the first hint of a problem surfaces, and by then it’s way too late. Eradicating false information from the records is tremendously difficult, given the number of providers a patient’s information is shared with.

As a result of this I very much support the idea of a central governmental operated database that contains a given patient’s data. Having it all in one place can easily set flags to detect a sudden change of venue, such as a patient living in Oregon when suddenly services are being rendered in New York state, Such flags would cause an immediate verification process. Also sudden shifts of why the patient was seeking treatment for a different set of issues, or the current information demonstrated an unexplained  change in blood type (!) or other identifier would set off alarms. A central repository, along with tight controls and standardization of policies and laws among the several states would be another profound step in the right direction. If companies Like PayPal, UPS and FedEx can maintain critical information safely and in utilitarian ways, so too can this system keep the data available, yet safe.

I felt angry and violated when my credit card information was stolen. Yet even I find it difficult to imagine how I would feel if my financial and health future was destroyed so someone undeserving could improve their condition, or worse yet, their wallets. Below is a link to a research and information organization funded by the California Consumer Protection agency. regardless of the state in which you live, this is a website well worth visiting, especially if you are facing medical challenges.