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Stocking stuffer: health gift card

In the Blue Cross, Blue Shield program, with a $19 gift card, recipients save 10 percent to 50 percent on braces, dentures, crowns, fillings, oral surgery, and cosmetic dentistry, and 10 percent to 60 percent on eye exams, glasses, and contacts. In the Blue Cross, Blue Shield program, with a $19 gift card, recipients save 10 percent to 50 percent on braces, dentures, crowns, fillings, oral surgery, and cosmetic dentistry, and 10 percent to 60 percent on eye exams, glasses, and contacts. (Mark Lennihan/ Associated Press)
By Suzette LaBoy
Associated Press / December 24, 2009

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MIAMI - Health care providers are rolling out a different sort of stocking stuffer: gift cards that can be used to pay bills and insurance premiums or for specific services at eye doctors and dentist offices.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida might have the largest program, selling cards at more than 1,000 Winn-Dixie and CVS stores in the state. The providers selling them say they can make a good gift, but industry observers contend some cards may not be right for many consumers.

“The person can make the decision on where to use it. That is really the gift of it,’’ said Sue Allen, a spokeswoman for Holy Family Memorial Health Network, a Wisconsin hospital and clinic chain that sells gift cards.

In the Blue Cross, Blue Shield program, with a $19 card, recipients save 10 percent to 50 percent on braces, dentures, crowns, fillings, oral surgery, and cosmetic dentistry; 20 percent off brand name and generic medications through most major pharmacies; and 10 percent to 60 percent on eye exams, glasses, and contacts.

Its $59 card can be used to help pay a premium or toward access to health insurance.

Some in health care point out that some cards may not be the right choice because they come with numerous restrictions or cost more than the benefit is worth.

“If you’re a company, it costs you nothing to put out a gift card. Even if they are not particularly a good deal, even a few people will buy them,’’ said Dr. David Howard, a health policy specialist at Emory University in Atlanta.

Doug Bartel, a Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida spokesman, acknowledged the cards do not cover everything and do not replace comprehensive health plans provided by an employer or purchased individually.

“They are a wonderful solution, but they are not the ideal solution for everyone,’’ Bartel said.

One recent version of a health care gift card failed.

In 2007, Pennsylvania health insurer Highmark launched its Healthcare Visa Gift Card, which helped cover out-of-pocket medical and health expenses. Consumer Reports criticized the cards because of their numerous fees and because they could purchase anything sold at a pharmacy, including cigarettes.

Highmark says it dropped the card after a year because of consumer confusion.