MasterCard Inc. said Monday that it is extending an agreement to provide payment cards for health accounts managed by the OptumHealth Inc. unit of UnitedHealth Group Inc.

The deal strengthens the Purchase, N.Y., card company's foothold in the growing health payment space, observers said.

MasterCard described the deal as a multiyear contract extension, but did not specify the duration. The companies have worked together since 2003.

Under the deal, MasterCard will provide cards for health savings accounts, flexible spending accounts and health reimbursement accounts for OptumHealth, including accounts used by members of UnitedHealth Group's medical carrier UnitedHealthcare Services Inc.

The cards can be used for co-payments, prescriptions and other eligible medical expenses.

"Today's payments opportunities lie in encouraging the use of electronic payments for health care," Jennifer Vanderwall, MasterCard's senior business leader for health-care solutions, said in an interview Monday.

Citing UnitedHealth's size, Vanderwall said the extension of the pact with the Minneapolis health company is "clearly a very large win for MasterCard and a very important relationship for us."

Patients are looking for more payment options for their health-care costs as more of those costs become their responsibility.

And because it is not always possible to determine patients' exact out-of-pocket costs for certain procedures at the time of their visits, "opportunities exist around payments at the point of service and also post-service payments," Vanderwall said. MasterCard's products can be used to access health accounts in either situation, she said.

Kunal Pandya, a senior analyst at Aite Group LLC of Boston, said there is still plenty of room for growth in the use of cards for health-care payments.

"About 30% of providers in the market don't accept cards, because they don't have the system to support that," Pandya said. These providers "want to introduce some kind of payment card" to cut down on the bad debt associated with other payment types, such as checks.

Card acceptance systems can assure health-care providers that the funds are available to cover patients' out-of-pocket expenses, Pandya said.

"MasterCard has been working in this space for a long time," he said, and the extension with OptumHealth furthers its work in promoting payment cards in health care.

The Obama administration may change some of the accounts currently covered under MasterCard's deal with OptumHealth, Pandya said.

"Medical FSAs may not be around for a very long time," he said, though "if you look at HSAs and HRAs, for now they say that they are here to stay."

Pandya stressed that while the types of accounts used today may change or be eliminated by the current administration, that is unlikely to slow the growth of electronic payments in this space, since there would still be demand among patients and providers for card-based payment methods.

"If you look at the future of them in the next three or four years, they are going to pick up very soon," Pandya said.

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