A company that markets medical identification cards in New York wants to add functions and take the cards national.
EMX plans to transform its Universal Health Card, now held by 20,000 consumers, into a multi-application card in partnership with other companies. New functions could include those of a credit card, medical savings account, driver license, and student identification, among others.
Combining medical information with a payment function has particular appeal to lenders looking to tap into the lucrative health-care market. New York-based EMX would be the first company to tie the two together.
"The important thing is that this feature can be applied immediately to existing cards, unlike smart cards that are good but need new applications to work," said Jerome Svigals, an electronic banking consultant in Redwood City, Calif., and a member of the EMX advisory board.
The Universal Health Card, like a bank card, has a magnetic stripe. When swiped through a credit card terminal, it accesses a record of everything from patients' allergies to their next of kin.
Cardholders' records are stored in EMX's central data base and can be released only when a personal identification number is keyed in. If the holder is incapacitated, medical personnel can call EMX for access to the records.
The company plans to offer two payment options this spring and expand the program nationally.
The first, Health Credit, would allow cardholders to charge up to $10,000 in medical expenses not covered by insurance. That amount would be payable over 36 months at a 14% interest rate.
Kevin J. Wallis, chief operating officer of EMX, said that a lot of people do not make paying their medical bills a priority, so many go unpaid. Medical expenses charged under Health Credit would be reported to credit bureaus, he said, to increase the chance that they would be paid.
"Instead of a bill that goes into the abyss, its priority for repayment is now right after paying rent and groceries," he said.
However, Jeffrey Baxter, principal of S.J. Baxter and Associates, Forest Hill, Md., doubts consumers will go for the idea. "Unless they got a tax benefit or a special investment offer, there wouldn't be any incentive to prepay" for their health costs, he said. "But 14% is not a bad rate, when you compare it to a credit card."
EMX has also partnered with Columbia Federal Savings Bank of Queens, N.Y., which will offer medical savings accounts. The account will be linked to an EMX card to pay for future medical expenses.
EMX rolled its Universal Health Card into the New York area eight months ago, promoting it as a convenience that provides easy access to an individual's health history in crisis situations.
Advertisements were placed in subway cars, hospital emergency rooms, and doctors' offices. The service costs $45 a year.
Since then, interest has been keen for the ID cards, the company said. "We expect to sign as many as 500,000 new members in the next 30 to 60 days," said Kevin Wallis, chief operating officer of EMX.
Universal Health Cards were tested in New York to establish a brand, he said.
Mr. Wallis said Barnett Banks Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla., and other card issuers in California and Connecticut have expressed interest in offering both programs to their customers.
EMX wants to sell the ideas to card issuers, so that an EMX account number can be stored on a credit card's magnetic stripe in the area not taken up by bank account numbers. This will allow issuers to differentiate medical transactions from others.
EMX seems to be "ahead of the curve," said Anita Boomstein, a partner in the N.Y.-based law firm Hughes, Hubbard & Reed.
She said the programs will be "very useful to consumers," assuming that soliciting "the merchants and marketing to cardholders-which is not a small task-is done effectively."