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Utah lawmaker dumps too- pricey privacy bill, pitches a milder version

Published February 6, 2012 7:09 pm

HB19 • Republican waters down bill that would have required agencies to stop using nine-digit identifiers that mimic Social Security numbers.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's a seemingly benign policy fix.

But a bill that would require state agencies to stop using nine-digit numbers to identify people — a switch intended to prevent misuse of Social Security numbers — was estimated to cost $10 million and caused a "buzz saw" of controversy, says its sponsor, Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan. On Monday, he pitched a watered-down version instead.

Harper says HB19 was sparked by stories in The Salt Lake Tribune revealing the Utah Department of Health's decades-long practice of handing out nine-digit ID numbers to Baby Your Baby applicants who claimed not to have Social Security numbers.

Often, the numbers were issued to undocumented immigrants who aren't eligible for the federally-funded prenatal care program — and some of those numbers belonged to Social Security cardholders in the Northeast, The Tribune found.

"This caused a few people a little bit of consternation," said Harper, referring to the "rightful owners of those numbers."

Harper worried that the numbering scheme placed cardholders at risk for identity theft, and proposed outlawing it.

Turns out, though, nine-digit IDs are quite common.

Multiple state agencies use them to track clients, including recipients of public aid such as food stamps and Medicaid. Your driver's license number is nine digits. So are case numbers that state courts apply to civil and criminal lawsuits.

Universities stopped issuing dummy Social Security numbers to undocumented immigrants after the federal government objected. But they still use the real numbers that belong to financial aid applicants, said Harper.

The price to reprogram computer systems to use eight, or 10-digits: $10.6 million, according to legislative fiscal analysts.

Such a hefty fiscal note would have been a deal-breaker for recession-weary lawmakers, said Harper, who tweaked his bill to give agencies more wiggle room.

His substitute version was unanimously endorsed by a committee on Monday and placed on the consent calendar in the House, ensuring speedier passage.

Agencies capable of making the switch would have to move away from nine digits. Others could wait for a major upgrade to their computer systems, replace numbers with letters or take steps to ensure that the digits they use don't conflict with real Social Security numbers.

The state Tax Commission, which uses actual Social Security numbers, is exempt from the bill.

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, asked whether, given all this leeway, some agencies may never change.

But Harper said the "big agencies" involved are already changing their numbering systems, including the state courts and Division of Motor Vehicles.

The courts use eight digits for juvenile cases and when they exhaust those number combinations, they'll jump to 10 numbers, instead of nine, said assistant court administrator Rick Schwermer. Case numbers are different than ID numbers, "but to the extent that [Harper's] highlighting the sensitivity of nine digits, we get it and we're not doing to use them."

The state health department continues to give out nine-digit numbers to Baby Your Baby applicants who don't have Social Security numbers, but has tweaked the numbering system. The Social Security Administration suggested that one way to avoid confusion would be to start each number with three zeroes, agency spokesman Tom Hudachko said in previous interviews.

The Division of Workforce Services, which dispenses Medicaid, cash assistance and food stamps, is taking similar steps.

"There will be documentation costs. The PID [personal identifier] is on some notices that we send out," said the agency's legal counsel Geoffrey Landward.

But upgrading the agency's new multi-million client tracking system would cost-prohibitive, he said.

kstewart@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kirstendstewart

A look back: The Baby Your Baby controversy

Utah gave Maine cop's SSN to undocumented immigrant seeking health care, May 12, 2011

http://bit.ly/jIqRic

Risks vs. benefits of fast-track prenatal care, Kirsten Stewart, May 12, 2011

http://bit.ly/zsOAPI

State may revise IDs in Baby Your Baby program, May 13, 2011

http://bit.ly/kpdfvE

Embattled Utah clinic a scapegoat? May 17, 2011

http://bit.ly/ljZwPV

Utah tweaks Baby Your Baby IDs to avoid Social Security conflicts, August 4, 2011

http://bit.ly/ztlez2

A look back: The Baby Your Baby controversy

For past coverage of the program's distribution of Social Security numbers to undocumented — and ineligible — clients, visit http://www.sltrib.com.