Equifax Inc. plans to soon add another building block to its growing health care processing unit.

The diversified information services company started the ball rolling earlier this week by signing a letter of interest to purchase an Atlanta-based clearinghouse - called the Electronic Tabulating Service - that electronically processes health care claims.

This is Equifax's third acquisition of a health care service company in the past 18 months. It highlights a desire throughout the financial industry to gain entry into the potentially lucrative health care market.

"This acquisition is another in a series of moves designed ultimately to establish Equifax as a leader in the handling of health care related information," said C.B. Rogers Jr., the chairman and chief executive of Equifax, in a prepared statement.

Competition is already mounting in this area among banks and other financial service companies. Earlier this week, Chase Manhattan Bank teamed up with a health care claims processor to issue automated payments to a network of dentists. Card Establishment Services Inc. and First Financial Management Corp. -- a payment processor and the parent of a processor, respectively - have both recently acquired health care servicing companies as well.

Electronic Tabulating Service provides services to about 300,000 U.S. physicians through agreements with more than 400 software partners. Its system electronically links physicians to insurers and other payers throughout the country.

The acquisition of Electronic Tabulating Service would significantly expand Equifax's current claims volume and give the company access to more than 100 additional insurers and payers.

Equifax officials hope to combine this company with a previous acquisition -- Cooperative Healthcare Networks, which it bought from BellSouth Enterprises in January. - and develop an electronic data interchange network for the health care system.

Other Services Planned

Although health care servicing has only recently become more popular among financial institutions, the Atlanta-based service company took its first steps down this road 18 months ago by acquiring Health Economics Corp., Dallas, which processes health care claims electronically.

Beyond processing, Equifax is striving to develop a complete and well-rounded health care information services business that would also include other services, according to Tina Black, a company spokeswoman.

Equifax, which established itself as a major credit bureau, also deals in insurance services, general information services, and international operations.

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