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Health care via gift cards

They're no substitute for insurance, but, for the uninsured, every little bit helps.

By Karen Datko Nov 2, 2009 1:34PM

These days people do what they can to get health care, whether it’s a free flu shot at the local strip club or bidding online at PriceDoc, which WalletPop calls a Priceline approach to care.


With so many people going without health insurance, why not give the benefit of health care via a gift card?


Actually, a Pennsylvania insurer a couple years ago marketed a Visa health care gift card that Consumer Reports said was loaded with fees and could be used to buy anything at the drugstore, like candy and cigarettes. That’s like giving a Subway gift card to an overweight friend and hoping the user orders the teriyaki chicken sub instead of the cheesesteak.


Those Visa cards are no longer available, but the idea has caught on. For example:

  • An Idaho health care management firm devised a gift card that small employers who don’t provide health insurance can give to employees to help cover the cost of seeing a doctor. The employer contributes to the card based on hours worked.
  • Scott & White in Texas sells gift cards in amounts up to $500. “The Gift Card is good toward patient visits and copays at all Scott & White clinics and purchases in the cafeteria or the gift shops in our main hospital in Temple,” its Web site says.
  • The Capital Area Health Network offers a gift card good for paying for services at two health care facilities.
  • Complete Compassionate Care in Missouri markets a gift card for home health care -- or golf.
  • Holy Family Memorial sells a gift card for doctor visits or things like massages or espressos.

Clearly such cards can benefit the many who are uninsured or underinsured -- but they're no substitute for real health care reform. In 2007, “40% of Americans between 18 and 64 had no insurance or had coverage so paltry they were exposed to catastrophic expenses,” MSN Money’s Liz Pulliam Weston wrote in a recent article about health reform.

Caveat: If you buy such a card for an uninsured friend, watch out for fees. Consumer Reports suggested that instead of a gift card, “You can simply write a check to his or her doctor for the next visit or pick up the cost of a prescription.”


Meanwhile, more employers are offering gift cards as an incentive for employees to sign up for wellness programs as part of their health care package at work. Chains like CVS and Wal-Mart are heavily marketing the cards, which can be used for prescriptions or anything else sold in the stores, including the candy.


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