Coming: Insurance Debit Cards That Reveal Health History

Patient ID cards from UnitedHealth can be used as debit cards for medical expenses as well as give doctors access to patients' medical information.

Patients covered by UnitedHealth Group will soon receive patient identification cards that they can use as debit cards for medical expenses and that doctors can use to access patients personal health information electronically.

The banking industry has seen health savings accounts as a way to add customers and expand services, arguing that the software currently used to process financial transactions can readily be tuned to handling health care claims. However, UnitedHealth established its own financial services group, Exante, in January 2002.

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The new cards, which will carry the MasterCard logo, can be swiped like a credit card at a doctors office or other certified health provider. But in addition to providing payment, the cards can be used to confirm eligibility for services and provide access to personal health information at the point of care. The cards should be broadly available early in 2007.

UnitedHealth is working on a feature that uses the cards to interface with its electronic systems and determine precisely how much the patient owes at the time of the doctor visit. Besides collecting copayments and other patient-billable expenses easily, doctors offices can use the cards to submit and process insurance claims more quickly, says UnitedHealth.

The cards will be tied to health savings and flexible spending accounts (HSAs and FSAs), tax-protected funds that generally must be used for health-related expenses. UnitedHealth, whose subsidiary Exante Financial Services is handling this, will also offer credit lines that can cover medical expenses not covered by health insurance and that exceed amounts in an individuals accounts.

"By combining health and financial information, we have greatly simplified a series of fragmented and time-consuming experiences for health care consumers," said John Prince, CEO of Exante Financial Services, in a statement.

The Bush administration has been advocating HSAs as a way to give patients a personal financial stake in choosing health care. Critics counter that employers and insurers use HSAs to skimp on traditional health benefits and that the accounts encourage patients to avoid necessary preventive care as well as excessive care.

In addition to managing financial accounts, doctors will be able to use patients cards to aggregate and display medical information based on claims data. Though this will not include medical procedures that were not processed through UnitedHealth, it should reveal information like what labs physicians have ordered for a patient, whether a patient fills prescriptions regularly, and what other services the patient is receiving. The patient can also choose to add information to the claims-based record, such as allergies, immunizations and family history.

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