Highmark offers the ultimate get-well card

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Just in time for the holidays, you'll be able to buy Dad a gift card that pays for his semiannual trip to the urologist.

That's gotta rank below socks and underpants, no?

But Highmark Inc., the Pittsburgh-based health insurer, hopes its new Healthcare Gift Card will encourage people who might be reluctant to visit the doctor or spend their money on prescriptions -- namely, seniors and college students -- to do so.

The card itself costs $4.95, and can be loaded with as little as $25, which might cover a prescription co-pay, to as much as $5,000, which could pay for an elective surgery, such as Lasik.

"Ultimately, we think this product may go national," said Kim Bellard, Highmark's vice president of e-marketing and consumer relations. He expects other insurers will be interested in using the "intellectual technology," which Highmark hopes to patent.

"We do expect other people to follow," he said. "We certainly expect phone calls from other Blues plans. ... I would love to get a phone call from AARP."

If the patent is received, any insurer or organization that tries selling a similar gift card may owe Highmark royalties.

They say it's the first gift card of its kind, and as such may represent the gift card's final frontier, as they already are available for almost any other thing you could conceivably buy, from clothes to groceries to computer equipment to a trip to the salon to a dinner at Red Lobster.

Highmark partnered with Visa in developing the card, which can be used just like a Visa credit card or debit card, but only at merchants that Visa has categorized as health-related. That means, yes, the urologist, but also the dentist, the eye doctor, the gym, the ear doctor and the family physician, not to mention the pharmacy.

But couldn't you just take the gift card to Rite Aid and spend it on a case of Coca-Cola and a bag of Snickers bars? "We obviously don't advertise that," Mr. Bellard said. But the answer is, yes -- for now. In the future though, the purchases could be restricted not just from merchant to merchant, but from product to product. You could use the card on medicine, but not candy bars, in other words.

"The card networks are working on doing it by inventory control, but that's a couple years off," Mr. Bellard said.

Though the card is making its debut in time for the holiday season, Mr. Bellard said Highmark's marketing research, conducted by TNS, shows that the health card wouldn't necessarily be purchased as a Christmas or birthday gift. Instead, it's more "situational," he said -- when someone's medical expenses are piling up, or when a child goes off to college.

"You give him $200 in cash, he's going to spend it on beer," Mr. Bellard said of the hypothetical college student. "You give him a gift card, he's sort of got to cheat" to spend it on something other than its intended purpose.

A year-and-a-half of research and development has shown Highmark that the target audience will be the sandwich generation, largely women (who handle a lot of the health care decisions and spending) between 35 and 55, who might have both a child in college and an aging parent. The cards are available at www.givewell.com.

Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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