For that last minute shopper. . .

Brad Cain, for Health Plan Insider , November 14, 2007

With the holiday season nearly upon us, Pennsylvania insurer Highmark Inc. is rolling out something that could help all you last minute shoppers. No, it's not a new Medicare-approved health plan for grandma (although they have several) or a shiny new Health Savings Account-compatible policy for Uncle Jimmy (yes, they have those too). But it is something that could fit anyone in the family, a good friend or even a co-worker.

Ok, enough guessing.

The insurer has joined the ranks of Macy's, Sears, CircuitCity and nearly every other retailer in the country by offering their own brand of gift cards. But instead of socks or CDs, this one is only good for healthcare products and services.

Backed by the Visa network, the Healthcare Gift Card can be used for anything from a doctor's office copay to the monthly dues at a health club. The card can be preloaded with any amount from $25 to $5,000, and can be given to anyone. The cards are issued by MetaBank, under license by Visa, and carry a $4.95 service fee--but don't expect to see the cards in your local grocery store checkout line. They're only available for purchase online or over the phone.

Just how much traction these will have with the buying public is still unknown, but Highmark is high on the concept."We think sales will be pretty steady over the year, says Kim Bellard, Highmark's vice president of e-marketing and consumer relationship management. "Our research indicated that consumers would see this less as a holiday purchase item than as a situational purchase item, but I think we will benefit from the added gift card awareness during the holiday season."

Overall, the insurer is estimating that sales could reach well into the six-figure range and that's just in its home state of Pennsylvania, where it's currently marketing the gift cards. If these projections hold true, Bellard says they'll look at rolling out the concept across the nation.

Brad Cain is editor of California Healthfax and executive editor for managed care with HealthLeaders Media. He may be reached at .

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