Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Health Care

Are Those Health Care Alliance Cards You Got in the Mail a Scam?

• March 29, 2013 • 12:40 PM

Pharmacy discount cards

The Rxrelief discount cards. The letter suggests giving extra cards to “anyone who could save money on prescription medications.”

Obamacare and its muddying of the medical-cost landscape offers newly fertile ground for advocates, entrepreneurs, and crooks.

So against that backdrop of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, one of our staffers received an envelope—unsolicited—in the mail bearing resident code “HB-6357-14294” and containing  “pharmacy discount cards” and a letter welcoming her as a new member of Healthcare Alliance. It’s one of those things that almost require you to examine with jaundiced eyes. The cards, which reportedly can open the door to discounts up to 75 percent, were “pre-activated”—not a surprise since the unsought membership itself came pre-activated—and could be used immediately. At least the program didn’t ask for any money up front, and the letter says the cards “have no fees, now or ever—they’re absolutely free.”

The letter looked reasonably official, and while you might mistake it for something important from your own health insurer, it still had a sufficiently commercial edge that you wouldn’t mistake it for a government or genuine do-not-ignore-me document. (Oh, that I could say that of some of the junk mail I got after re-financing.) And the four cards from “Rxrelief” enclosed, each featuring a presumably unique membership identification number along with alphanumeric identifiers for “BIN,” “GRP,” and “PCN,” all suggest some official rigor is involved.

And yet … I expect most Americans, barring those still awaiting Nigerian fortunes, would echo my wariness about the Healthcare Alliance, as a little chat with my good friend Mr. Google bore out. As I typed in “healthcare all…” autofill suggested “healthcare alliance pharmacy discount card is it a scam” among other choices.

Spoiler alert: it’s not. But the words “skeevy” and “shady” do come up in online forum conversations about the cards, and so too does the not-exactly-ringing endorsement of “it isn’t overtly evil.” Online forums, as this exercise demonstrated, are also giant echo chambers, where one person’s suspicions instantly morph into the next person’s facts, and concerns, say about personal privacy, lead to baseless calls for a class-action suit.

At the same time, some posters say they’ve used the cards and are pleased saving money, but it’s a rough neighborhood when people are aroused. After “Darla K” posted this at the Topix forum for Lexington, Kentucky:

I have used the RxRelief Card. Not in Kentucky, but in New York. It saved me almost 50 percent on eye drops. I was skeptical too, so I e-mailed customer service. Someone got back to me right away and told me it was no strings attached, totally free, etc.

I’ve shared the card with friends too, and all have had a positive experience. If they have our personal information, I haven’t noticed any effects of that.

“EEE” responded, “Wow, you sound like you work for RXRelief. Caveat Emptor. Big Time” while “Cele” reported, “I’ve been checking other sites. This ‘Darla’ pops up on ALL of them.”

A little more sophisticated digging does no favors for the program. The D.C. address for the Healthcare Alliance actually leads to a mail drop at a UPS store on Connecticut Avenue just south of Chevy Chase Circle. Lest that sound a little questionable, rest assured that this particular UPS Store is a hotbed of medical-related services, including the Mesothelioma Victims Center at #138 (also the home of the Nursing Home Complaint Center!) and the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care at #119.

While the maildrop is in D.C., the business itself—which operates under the names Healthcare Alliance, Rxrelief, and Script Relief LLC—is located in New York City. Dave Lieber, who writes the Watchdog column at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, phoned the company when he received a similar card last fall. He talked to Michael Loeb—this guy—in NYC, who explained about the maildrop, “It’s very convenient to get reply mail. We can’t in our New York office handle any reply mail directly. So we get it there, and it’s forwarded to us.” Can’t fault him for that; after all, I have a P.O. box, although oddly enough it’s in the same city I’m in.

The site scambook.com lists one complaint about the company, but the complaint echoes what I’ve written here: an unsolicited offer came in the mail. The same with Better Business Bureaus in various locales: a few complaints in the last two years, but mostly because something mysterious but quasi-official-looking arrived. I talked to my state’s Office of the Attorney General and the Federal Trade Commission, and after confirming that the program wasn’t touting itself as insurance, nobody at either office had anything untoward to report.

So I called Healthcare Alliance/Rxrelief/Script Relief, and while I’d expected to fight my way up the chain to eventually get somebody like Loeb to open up, instead I got a nonchalant but helpful customer service rep who identified herself as Desiree Smith.

How does the company make any money? They get a small amount, like a processing fee, from pharmaceutical companies when the cards are used; they’re aligned with this company to provide the discount the user receives.

Where are the cards accepted? At pharmacies the company has contracted with, and those negotiations also set the discount.

Who gets the cards? Some people opt to receive them, but others are drawn from sources (i.e. mailing lists) that identify likely users for the solicitation.

How many people use the cards? Smith said there are 800,000 cardholders, although the original letter says “more than 2,500,000 cardholders have saved $175,000,000 to date.” That comes to, by the way, $70 per cardholder, although I question whether a cardholder—I’m holding one now—equates to a card user.

And lastly, what do you do with my personal information? There is none – the cards are “completely anonymous” and the ID number is generic.

Hirka T’Bawa, a charter member at the StraightDope.com message board, explained the set-up from a pharmacy’s perspective:

As far as the pharmacy is concerned, you can use those cards just like an insurance card, we process them the exact same way. They give you whatever discount has been negotiated by the PBM (Pharmacy Benefits Manager). For most drugs and pharmacies, it would probably save you a little money from the cash price.

Or as forum moderator “stkitt” at HealingWell.com wrote two years ago:

The card works similar to insurance companies. It’s like a large buying group. Card holders pay pretty close to what the large insurance companies pay. The savings comes from the drug stores.

In fact, there’s a thriving little business model built on the cards, some that have a government imprimatur, some from pharma companies, some from nonprofits, and some from scrappy companies like Rxrelief. And if you’re not satisfied with the process or the savings, and people with insurance tend to already get cheaper meds already, don’t use the card.

I get discount offers all the time from third parties, offers that don’t make my antennae twitch. Sitting to my right, for example, is a flier for employee discounts from ADP, which handles our payroll. Oddly, while the sponsor for the discounts in this case is a health plan, CaliforniaChoice, the discounts are for things like amusement parks, dry cleaning, and Embassy Suites Anaheim.

So everything’s hunky-dory with these cards? Not necessarily. In determining that the FTC didn’t have a beef with these guys, the agency offered some examples of past discount card programs that had been scams or crossed a legal line somewhere.

Since I started writing this post earlier in the week, I received a glossy package from my new medical group telling me who my new primary care provider is and what wonders his practice offers me. Except I haven’t changed my provider and I don’t know yet if this is a scam or an honest mistake. And I routinely get a lot of solicitations—I’m looking at you, United of Omaha Life Insurance Company, and the FINAL Notification you sent both to my home and my P.O. box—that cross from hopeful to skeevy.

So I’m sticking to EEE’s advice. Caveat Emptor. Big Time.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.


December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.


December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.


December 15 • 10:00 AM

The 2016 Presidential Race Has Already Started

And this is the most exciting part.


December 15 • 8:00 AM

The Second Life of Old iPods

Why is it that old iPods are suddenly cool—and pricey again?


December 15 • 6:00 AM

The Lifelong Consequences of Rape

The long-term psychological and physical effects of the experience are devastating. And they’re likely exacerbated by the shame our culture insists on perpetuating.


Follow us


Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

There’s More Than One Way to Be Good at Math

Mathematical ability isn’t one single skill set; there are indeed many ways to be “good at math,” research shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.