Highmark "Healthcare Gift Card" Usable To Buy Cigs, Junk Food

A health insurance company is touting what some might think sounds like a great idea, a gift card that can “cover out-of-pocket expenses related to personal health and wellness.” Perfect for sick friends and ailing relatives, right? Well a Pittsburgh paper got one of the Highmark-branded cards and was able to buy from Rite Aid: cigarettes, chewing tobacco, Doritos, fudge brownies, Butterfingers, Hot Pockets, Mountain Dew, and a plastic World Wrestling Entertainment World Championship belt.

Turns out there’s no restrictions on what people can buy as long as it’s from retailers who partnered with the large western Pennsylvania insurance company. To make matters worse, the gift card is issued by VISA, and gift cards issued by banks nearly universally have purchase fees, maintenance fees and expiration dates. What a concept, a “healthcare” gift card that people can use to buy stuff that’s bad for their health and will make their wallet sick.

Highmark’s “Healthcare Gift Card” used to buy all that’s bad for you [Pittsburgh City Paper]


Edit Your Comment

  1. evslin says:

    Fudge brownies and a WWE championship belt. Wellness indeed!

  2. backbroken says:

    And why is this a bad thing?

  3. BloggyMcBlogBlog says:
  4. unklegwar says:

    @backbroken: If the balance is paid by the insurance company, then effectively, all those paying premiums are subsidizing these kinds of purchases.

    Though it’s really unclear exactly what an insurance gift card is. I’ve had a debit card for insurance before, but it only covered things like Rx co-pays, certain OTC drugs, doctors visits, etc. It rejected a chapstick.

  5. saltmine says:

    @unklegwar: Why does it matter if the insurance company is paying the balance? They aren’t giving the gift cards out for free.

  6. vanilla-fro says:

    Mmmmmm, Medicinal Doritos.

    Also the WWE belt can be worn by those who have been victorious over illness.

  7. DallasDMD says:

    since its just a regular visa card, there really isn’t much they can do to specify which purchases are allowed or not. I know, for example, that a gift card I received couldn’t not be used at gas pumps, so the best they could probably do is limit the card to particular businesses they think are ‘health’ related.

  8. Canadian Impostor says:

    This seems like an awesome way to abuse your FSA at work.

  9. backbroken says:

    @unklegwar: I don’t think they are subsidizing anything. These are gift cards, right? A customer has already paid for them.

  10. ekthesy says:


    Yes, precisely. The problem here is the widespread availability of cigarettes. CVS/Rite-Aid/Walgreens/etc. are really double-dealing in this instance by offering smokes and junk food alongside health items.

    But it’s clearly restraint of trade to say “CVS, you can’t sell cigarettes.” So although Healthmark has good intentions in this situation, as you said, they are powerless to control anything but the store at which the card is valid.

  11. warf0x0r says:

    I used mine to buy a Vile of Ebola Zaire from the local Viral research center. @vanilla-fro: lol

  12. Buran says:

    @Canadian Impostor: Not really — now they’re instituting “inventory control” or something like that, and if you try to buy something with a health care debit card that isn’t on the FSA approved list, the purchase will fail. I got a flyer about this in my statement recently.

    This isn’t the health care company’s fault — it’s the fault of the drugstore that mistakenly listed all this stuff as FSA-eligible.

  13. bohemian says:

    That looks like a shopping list from Idiocracy.

  14. Bay State Darren says:

    Well I suppose if you use medical marijuana the Doritos could be for treating the awesome side effects.

  15. drjayphd says:

    See, now, if they wanted to buy the spinning WWE belt, that would’ve been out of the question.

  16. NoWin says:

    Well, Visa’s website logo is

    “Enjoy life’s opportunities”

  17. ninabi says:

    Maybe a few liters of Mountain Dew instead of stimulant medication for your ADHD child?

  18. uricmu says:

    If you want to read more on the original “invention”:


  19. Shadowman615 says:

    So what do they propose as a solution? I understand restricting to only things like perhaps food (which would rule out cigarettes and plastic toys) and medications and other health-related items. But if they are going to allow any food at all, they really shouldn’t be able to pick & choose what kind of food you can buy.

  20. upokyin says:

    A gift card that allows people to buy whatever they want? Outrage!

  21. smitty1123 says:

    … what kind of dork gives a gift card that you could only buy certain things with?

  22. Canadian Impostor says:

    @Buran: Right but that’s for an FSA debit card. This is a gift card, not an FSA debit card.

  23. Raanne says:

    are we sure? because I had a debit-like card with my last FSA, and i could use it whenever i wanted, but if teh amount wasn’t the same as my co-pay, i still had to mail in a receipt, or they would bill me for the amount.

  24. LikeYourFace says:

    @ekthesy: That’s not the problem. CVS can sell all cigs it wants, but you they shouldn’t take your health care money as payment. The restriction should be on the card, not the store.

    Newsflash: You can’t buy beer with your WIC card or food stamps either.

  25. DallasDMD says:

    @smitty1123: Any time someone gives out a store-specific gift card?

    I know, for example, that I wouldn’t give someone money if I knew they would spend it on things I thing are unhealthy or appalling.

  26. eelmonger says:

    @smitty1123: Actually most gift cards are supposed to be restricted from purchasing certain things. The gift cards for the grocery store I used to work with said they could not be used for alcohol, tobacco, and dairy. Thing was, it was up the the cashier to recognize this because nothing was restricted in the register, which is easy to do if someone comes in to buy a pack of smokes, but pointless on a large order of groceries. So it was likely just a clerk who didn’t want to deal with telling the guy he could only use the card on some of his stuff/a lazy scan coordinator who didn’t flag all this stuff.

  27. missdona says:

    This is a non-story to me.

    I have a card like this from Wageworks. I could buy anything at a Rite Aid (or anywhere else) with it. However, the terms of the card state that I may have to provide receipts for items purchased. And if I can’t prove, with my receipt, that I used the card for healthcare, I would owe wageworks for the amount charged.

    For as long as I’ve had the card, they’ve asked for receipts from stores like CVS, Target and the like, but not from Doctors offices, vision care places etc.

  28. MBZ321 says:

    I figured cards like these could be used for anything when this story was posted a few weeks back. It’s just a VISA card with a health logo on it.. I don’t see how the purchases could be restricted.

  29. nealb says:

    This looks to me just like a Visa gift card customized graphically by the insurance company. No matter what a Visa gift card is “branded” it can still be used anywhere Visa is accepted. I think the “give the gift of healthcare” is just a marketing gimmick. It says “meant to ‘cover out-of-pocket expenses related to personal health and wellness.'” but I get gift cards every year for Christmas “meant to buy me clothes,” but that isn’t always what I do with them. In almost any circumstance a Visa card is a Visa card, there’s no reason that a retailer should have denied a purchase based on the issuer of the card.

  30. thatgirlinnewyork says:

    Fault lies with the HMO and the tech company that sells these cards to pharma and insurance companies–pharmacos use them all the time to provide “relief” from unwieldy drug co-payments. they can be programmed to restrict certain merch, but it’s costly.

  31. Buran says:

    @Canadian Impostor: I don’t see what the difference is, so what’s up with that?

  32. Buran says:

    @nealb: Like I posted in response to CI just a second ago, I’m a little not-sure what the difference is between debit healthcare cards and gift healthcare cards. One is issued in your name, the other has no name associated because it was a gift, right, though? Isn’t it subject to the same restrictions?

    My card says VISA on it but I still can’t use it for anything not FSA-qualified, as it will be rejected if I try. Or so sayeth WageWorks.

    I mostly use it for prescription copays right now, or OTC meds… but will be getting an eye exam & an updated prescription & new lenses for my existing frames, all tax-free.

  33. Buran says:

    @missdona: As of Jan 1 they’re now using that inventory control thing I described, so you shouldn’t have to send in the receipts anywhere near as often. I know Walreens marks what’s FSA-eligible and what’s not on the receipts and on the register as stuff gets scanned, and CVS doesn’t, which is very useful.

    I’m glad I won’t have to worry about the receipts anymore. What a hassle.

  34. Electroqueen says:

    This is what happens when you give out a card that lets you buy food or anything for personal satisfaction. Junk food for all. I remember that as a child, you could buy hot pockets, those crappy white castle burgers, all on that WIC card.

  35. darkinfero says:

    I work for one those retail pharmacy that people have been commenting on. First off some are receipts and the mylar on the wall have fsa mark on it. Some company’s block it that only fsa items get charged. But some company’s don’t because they don’t want to spend the extra money to have that feature. I know that it could be done without all the problems.