A Swipe at Better Health?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

This holiday season, why not give the gift of Botox? Or, for that matter, a prostate exam? Or a Pap smear?

A Pittsburgh health insurance company is betting that consumers are ready for a new kind of gift card: one that helps pay for health and medical services.

Like gift cards for iTunes music or Starbucks coffee, Highmark's Health Gift Card (available from http://www.givewell.com for $4.95 plus a shipping/handling charge) is a debit card. The giver pays to have it loaded with as little as $25 or as much as $5,000 -- enough for a Lasik eye treatment or certain cosmetic procedures. Any location that accepts Visa debit cards should honor the card.

Kim Bellard, Highmark's vice president of e-marketing and consumer relations, expects the card to appeal mostly to "the sandwich generation" -- women between 35 and 55 who care for both aging parents and their own children. "They have a bunch of competing needs that a health-care card can fill," he says, such as helping Dad buy his drugs or ensuring that a college student can purchase away-from-home medical care.

The card may also help some who are uninsured, though this is not its primary intent, according to Bellard.

Edward Howard, executive vice president of the Alliance for Health Reform, a nonprofit group that promotes universal health coverage, supports the idea of using the card for health-related expenses such as gym memberships but says people shouldn't have to rely on holiday favors for essential care. "We can't gift-card our way to health-care affordability," he says.

For now, there is nothing to bar a shopper from using the card to buy, say, cigarettes or soft drinks at a drugstore. Ballard says that loophole is likely to close. "The future will bring more product-item-level tracking," he says.

-- Ranit Mishori

© 2007 The Washington Post Company