Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Universal Health Card -- Money for Nothing

How does the Star Tribune decide what ads to accept? Would they accept an ad from me that read, "Send me $18 and I'll give you health care"? I guess so.

In today's paper, on page A9, there's a full-page, four-color ad for something called Universal Health Card. It's one of those layouts that's supposed to look like a newspaper article, in hopes of confusing the old or less media-savvy reader into thinking it's legitimate.

Top half of the Universal Health Card ad
It's hard to tell what the ad is promising. Basically, though, I think it says if I send them $18 within 48 hours as a registration fee, I get a card that gets me "affordable care provided by 561,000 doctors, dentists, pharmacists and hospitals." It never says how much it will save me on health care, but it says it's accepted at 57,000 of the largest pharmacies (such as CVS, Target, Walgreens, Rite Aid and Wal-Mart) and by 561,000 health care professionals (although I think that total includes the pharmacies).

After reading the ad this morning, I thought the only cost was $18, which would give me the card permanently, but then I saw somewhere in the midst of all that sans serif text this gem:

Long term protection will also be extended to card holders at just forty-nine dollars a month, but now that everyone can get the card for free, it's so important that everyone in need of protection calls now and beats the 48-hour deadline. All that is needed is to cover just the registration fee that will provide the first thirty days of complete, affordable protection with the Universal Health Card for free.
Yes, you read that right -- it costs $49 a month for access to this list of unknown discounts. It's the first month of access that the ad is offering for free (if you don't count the $18 registration fee... I guess that puts the "fee" in "free"). But the ad's creators couldn't be bothered to helpfully transform the words "forty-nine dollars" into $49, since that way a reader might actually realize it's a price. These charlatans could type "48-hour" in the same sentence, but not $49.

Bottom half of the Universal Health Card ad
They repeat the dire 48-hour warning seven times throughout the ad, but the monthly cost the buyer would be incurring appears only once, buried in the middle of 20 inches of copy, written out as if it were not number, and lacking a dollar sign to flag the reader that the text is discussing money. In contrast, the copy mentions the $18 fee twice as numbers and once written out (downplaying it by calling it a "registration fee," of course).

It does say several times that "this is not insurance." It manages to imply that if it were insurance, that would be a bad thing, since insurance would require you to submit to a medical exam, fill out forms, and could exclude you from coverage.

I mean, the ad doesn't even list a website prominently, although I did finally spot one at the very end of the text that looks like a legal disclaimer near the bottom of the ad ( A logo-like thing appears on the fake "this is not insurance" card that says BioScrip. A company called Coverdell & Co. of Chicago is listed as the administrator.

The Universal Health Card artwork, prominently labeled This is not insuranceBioScrip, Coverdell and Universal Health Card all have legitimate-looking websites. BioScrip's site doesn't mention the card that I could find. Coverdell doesn't mention UHC specifically, but does offer "loyalty plans" for a number of things, and "fee-income products" for everything from health care to insurance to personal ads (a nice product mix, I'd say).

The UHC site tells us right away that their card entitles its bearer to a 5 to 60% discount (this statement was not included anywhere in the ad) at participating health care providers. Using their handy search engine to look for providers that are supposedly covered in my area, I found chiropractors and social workers listed as physicians (despite the fact that chiropractors have their own category for searching) and a relatively short list of names, none of which were familiar to me (except the gynecologist at Boynton Health Services at the U of M).

When I searched pharmacies (which are queried through a separate search, and come back labeled "Bioscrip Network Pharmacies") I got a locally owned drugstore in St. Paul and Health Partners for my St. Paul search, and lo and behold, Target, Cub, and two Walgreens for my south Minneapolis search. I wonder if I called them, would I find out they've never heard of the UHC? Or that they offer a 5% discount on a limited range of products, perhaps. (I'll update tomorrow if I get a chance to call while the stores are open.)

A quick search of some of the relevant terms in the ad turned up (surprise!) evidence that it's a fraud. A story from WAFF-TV in Alabama on Oct. 10 reports on the ad's claims and checks in with the Better Business Bureau. The reporter called a number of the providers listed and found they were not accepting the card. The Alabama BBB also called some of those listed, and found the same thing. Update: WAAYYTV in Huntsville, Alabama, now has a similar story; the North Adams (Massachusetts) Transcript has a story on insurance scams generally, which includes the UHC.

So, back to my original question. Is the Star Tribune so hard up for money that it has to run ads from companies that want to rip off its readers? I guess so.

By the way, the toll-free numbers listed in the ad are 866-729-5807 and 866-619-6786, and a third one, 800-731-4576, is listed on the UHC website. I wonder if I could figure out a program to autodial them all continuously for days on end. Hmmm.

Update #1: I called the two Walgreens, as well as the Target and HealthPartners, that were listed. None of the people I spoke to had ever heard of the UHC or BioScrip but they all said that didn't mean they wouldn't accept it because they take a lot of "pharmacy benefit cards." Walgreens, for instance, has its own card that costs $20 per year and covers 500 drugs.

The very helpful woman I spoke to at Target at first assumed it was a free discount card, and when I told her it cost $50 a month, she paused, and then said I should call the UHC company and give them a list of my specific medications "and if they can't tell you what it would save you, I wouldn't touch it."

So I just called one of UHC's 800 numbers to ask just that. I was told that they couldn't tell me what savings I would have on any specific medication without knowing what specific pharmacy was involved, and that I should ask the pharmacy. Of course, I said the pharmacy had said to ask UHC. And this is when the customer service rep said, "That's why we have the free 30-day trial, so you can take the card in and see how much it saves you."

Except, of course, it's not free. It costs $18 to get the free card.

Update #2: Ted Vaden, the ombudsman of the North Carolina News & Observer took his own paper to task for accepting the UHC advertisement. He had checked with the University of North Carolina hospital to see if it was covered by UHC and was definitively told it was not; UHC claims that it is.

Wow, the
Star Tribune used to have an ombudsman, but that job was lost in the newspaper diaspora.

Update #3: See my latest post on the UHC, posted on Dec. 6, 2008.


elena said...

Thanks for the careful decoding of this ad. The robocalls are a great idea!

pam r said...

Ijust finished reading the same full page 'ad' and I thought that this would be wonderful! Fortunately, i decided to google UHC. Usually i will go to thefirst 'home' site after sponsored, yet for some reason i was drawn to yours. Thank goodness i was, now how do we as a whole get this message to the ones that are the most vulnerable ?! The elderly for one! I would like to thank you for taking the time to 'investigate' and then to pass that information on to others!!! Let us(me) know what can be done to try and reach more people!! $18.00 x several thousand plus can take away what little most of us haveand make those running the UHC show very wealthy!! Let's all do what we can to ensure this doesn't happen.

Daughter Number Three said...


I was hoping that writing about the scam would keep at least a few people from wasting their time and money, so I'm glad you saw it in your search results.

I think the best thing we can do to reach seniors is call our local Better Business Bureaus when the ad runs in our area. If you have a seniors' organization in your area (here in Minnesota, we have the Minnesota Seniors Federation), calling or emailing them to alert them would also be helpful so they can spread it through the network of people they work with.

It's hard to think of what to do otherwise, but if you think of something, let me know!


Tom and Sue Wood said...

We had the exact same add in our newspaper today. I thought of my daughter right away who is between jobs and without health insurance. Very scary. I definitely will not forward this info to her. Thanks so much for the input.

mslovely said...

just wanted to let the readers know that the universal healthcard is indeed a fraud. used to work for the company, and there are so many loopholes tied into this thing its not funny. anyone thinking about signing up for it please do me a favor...dont!!!

mslovely said...

just wanted to let the readers know that the universal health card is indeed a fraud. it does not save anyone money, it only makes the company money. I used to work for the company, and there are so many loopholes tied into this thing that its not funny. anyone thinking about sighning up for this card, do me a favor, dont!!!

LuceLineGuy said...

Thank you for the "heads-up" on this one also.
The ad must've run again during the weekend of 3/15/09 - as my sis emailed the phone # and the story to me. I googled the # and found this site.
I asked her if it was an ad, she told me it was a news article and the card was offered by the government.

Now I'm nervous.
Thanks again.

Daughter Number Three said...

The ad takes advantage of the fact that we're all busy and distracted while reading the paper, hoping we'll think exactly what your sister did. Unfortunately, she is nowhere near alone in thinking it's an official program.

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Anonymous said...

domo arigato

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

I think there may be a new scam but now with the name "Pharmacy
Discount Card". I received this card in the mail, unsolicited, on 10/17/10 and, after going to the listed website '', evidently found your blog.