Medi-Cal recipients have social security number exposed

February 9, 2010 12:06:11 AM PST
California's most vulnerable are now at risk of identity theft and the state is to blame. Letters went out to thousands of Medi-Cal recipients, including the blind and the elderly, and on the envelopes were social security numbers for all to see.

The California Department of Health Care Services sent out those letters. Its deputy director would not go into detail as to how a mistake like this could happen, but it did, and advocates for the state's most vulnerable are seething.

For Vincentine Wichlan of Walnut Creek, caring for her mother is a full-time job. Maria Consagra was diagnosed with dementia six years ago.

"She's 86 years old. She doesn't know anything that's going on," says Wichlan.

That is why Wichlan is angry at what happened to her mother and 49,000 other Medi-Cal recipients over the past week.

They received a letter from the state Department of Health Care Services alerting them of possible changes in eligibility. And on each envelope was the recipient's social security number right above the name and address.

"With a social security number, a name and address, whoever wants to can get a credit application and get credit," says Debbie Toth.

Toth is executive director of the Mt. Diablo Center, an adult day health care facility in Pleasant Hill. She says more than 100 people in her program are now vulnerable to identity theft.

"They're going to go to the Bahamas, they're going to do whatever they want on somebody else's credit, and then that old, frail, elderly or demented person, is suddenly going to have thousands of dollars in debt that they're liable for," says Toth.

The deputy director of the State Department of Health Care Services apologizes for the error. She says the department has since sent a follow-up letter advising Medi-Cal recipients to contact the three credit reporting agencies and set up a fraud alert on their account.

"We're doing everything we can so I think early notification to address the issue and all the immediate steps that we're taking will help mitigate the risk," says Karen Johnson from the state Department of Health Care Services.

However, Wichlan says her day is busy helping her mother. The last thing she has time for is to fix somebody else's mistake.

"The state needs to rectify this. They're the ones who need to contact the credit bureaus. They're the ones who need to take the time to do it because this takes out of my valuable time to take care of my mother," says Wichlan.

The state Department of Health Care Services says there have been no cases of identity theft so far. The department is reviewing its procedures to make sure this does not happen again.