After surgery on her shoulder last year, Lind Weaver, a 56-year-old retired schoolteacher, was billed for the amputation of her right foot. Refusing to pay the medical bill collectors, Weaver set about trying to prove that the surgery had obviously not been performed on her -- since her foot was intact -- which proved a more difficult task than recovering from simple credit card ID theft.
Experts say the rising costs of U.S. healthcare are driving medical identity fraud, and many victims are entirely unaware that their medical identity has been stolen unless they receive a hospital bill or an inquiry from their insurance provider. In addition to potentially damaging credit reports and affecting future job status -- since many Fortune 500 companies require access to medical records when hiring or promoting -- medical identity theft can also cause fatal future hospital errors.
For example, Weaver suffered a heart attack in May, and when she awoke in the hospital two days later, a nurse asked her what drugs she was taking to treat her diabetes. Weaver did not suffer from diabetes -- though the woman who stole her identity did -- and diabetes patients receive different heart surgeries than patients without the disease.
However, even if health complications are avoided, medical identity fraud can lead to hellish legal ordeals. In the case of Salt Lake City resident Anndorie Sachs -- whose ID was stolen and used when the thief delivered a baby that tested positive for methamphetamine -- her four children were nearly taken from her by social workers, though she had not given birth for two years. Sachs' case was only resolved after she hired a lawyer and went to the local media. However, when Sachs was admitted to the hospital for a kidney infection last year, the hospital records indicated the wrong blood type, which could have resulted in a fatal error.
Victims of medical identity theft find that clearing their names can be even more difficult than those clearing a traditional credit card ID theft, largely because of laws designed to protect patients' medical records. Once a patient reveals to the hospital or doctor's office that their medical records are somehow tied to someone else's -- even though that person is an identity thief -- their records become much more difficult to access.
The U.S. House and Senate are currently working to pass bills that push wider use of electronic health records, which could potentially make it easier for medical identity theft victims to clear their names.