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The Oregon Health Authority used what it believed to be an unassigned Social Security number for five years to enroll young adults in a program that administers birth control and other family planning services. The practice ended when the agency learned the number did in fact belong to an individual.
“Were we aware that the dummy Social Security number was being used? Yes,” said OHA spokesman Jonathan Modie. “Were we aware it was tied to a specific person? After we were notified, yeah. And then we virtually immediately stopped using that and changed our processes.”
Modie said the agency’s actions were legal, and OHA is not being prosecuted for a crime.
ContraceptiveCare, or CCare, provides services like birth control, vasectomies, pelvic exams, pregnancy and STD testing to low-income adolescents ages 19 and younger free of charge. Between May 2010 and October 2015, OHA officials directed medical clinics enrolling patients in the program to use what they thought was an unassigned Social Security number. The practice ended when the Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General notified the agency that the number they were using was assigned to someone.
The Social Security number had been used to enroll 9,487 clients during that time, Modie said. The agency has permission from the federal government to enroll patients in the program for 45 days, regardless of whether they provide Social Security numbers initially. This allows the staff time to verify their eligibility.
Modie explained that teens don’t always have a Social Security number and might be reluctant to ask their parents, due to privacy concerns, about accessing family planning services.
Allowing applicants to enroll temporarily without providing their Social Security numbers reduces administrative barriers to services for teens, Modie said.
“Those barriers can prevent adolescents from using reproductive health services, and that could put them at risk for unplanned pregnancy, STDs, things like that,” he said.
None of the 9,487 people enrolled by using the unassigned Social Security number were able to stay on the program after the first 45 days if they weren’t able to prove eligibility, Modie said.
Modie declined to provide the actual number that was used but said it was provided to OHA by the vendor that operates CCare’s enrollment software — Ahlers & Associates, which is based in Waco, Texas. He described it as a “placeholder” in the section of the enrollment form that called for a Social Security number.
After the issue was uncovered, OHA developed a new enrollment process that allows staff members to leave the Social Security number field blank for people under the age of 20 who don’t have their numbers, according to a May 31 letter on the subject by Helene Rimberg, OHA’s Adolescent, Genetics, and Reproductive Health Section Manager. Within a week of being notified, the agency removed all references to the Social Security number in its eligibility database, the letter said.
Rimberg’s letter was addressed to Jim Welsh, a member of Parents’ Rights in Education, a group that’s concerned about comprehensive sex education in Oregon public schools, or what its website calls “Public School Porn.”
Welsh said his group received a tip about a year ago that the OHA was using the unassigned Social Security number and has been trying to learn more for the past year. He said the Social Security number that OHA used actually belonged to a person in Minnesota. Modie would not confirm that.
“For over a year, we’ve been attempting to flesh out this and get this confirmed by someone at the OHA,” Welsh said. “We received a letter from a midlevel person at the OHA confirming that, yes, they in fact did this.”
Modie said he is not aware of an active federal investigation by the Social Security Administration or the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services into the situation. He said the issue was corrected after it was uncovered to the satisfaction of those agencies.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 ruled a person cannot be convicted under federal identity theft law for using another person’s Social Security number unless a prosecutor proves the defendant knew the number belonged to another person. In that case, a Mexican man provided an unassigned Social Security number on a job application, not knowing it belonged to someone. The Supreme Court’s decision reversed a lower court’s conviction of aggravated identity theft.