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 Blue Shield of Florida might have the largest program, selling cards at over 1,000 Winn-Dixie and CVS stores in the state. The providers selling them say they can make a good gift, but industry observers say 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 expert at Emory University in Atlanta.
Some other gift card examples:
_ Holy Family Memorial sells a card that can be used toward everything from a hospital bill to a purchase at its gift shops. The network has sold nearly 2,500 cards since late last year.
_ Complete Compassionate Care in Michigan, a home health care provider, sells gift cards to cover its services, especially during the holidays. But some are "raffled or given out to those who actually need it," spokeswoman Bonnie Williams said. One woman who won a $100 gift card at a recent Alzheimer's Association event was able to hire a caregiver for four hours to help with her husband, who suffers from the disease.
Doug Bartel, a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida spokesman, acknowledged that 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 candy and cigarettes.
Highmark says it dropped the card after a year because of consumer confusion.
"A card is an inanimate object. Health care is a complicated product. It's very difficult to understand. And even the card itself, it had those restrictions and confusion around which products could be bought and which ones couldn't," spokeswoman Kristin Ash said.
Charlie Villar, who was shopping at a CVS store in Miami where the Blue Cross cards were being sold, said medical care and insurance coverage are too complex for gift cards.
"Even with my own health care, you have to take a close look at what your plan offers you. And for $59 or $19, I mean I don't know what I'm going to be giving someone," said Villar, a 38-year-old marketer.