Two Rxrelief Pharmacy Discount Cards popped out of my mailbox. An accompanying flier from Healthcare Alliance promises no fees or charges but discounts "up to 75 percent" on drugs at most pharmacies. Too good to be true?My wife, Karen, worked as direct mail manager for a national insurance company. She understands how to put the pop into these come-on offers.She noticed a Washington, D.C., return address on the envelope and questioned whether recipients might believe that the pharmacy discount cards come from the government as part of ObamaCare.The flier ("No claim forms. No deductibles or maximums ... No hassles. No kidding. Just savings on your medicine.") doesn't explain how the Rxrelief card works.Time for a credibility test. An easy way to learn about a company is a simple address check. Does it have a physical street address? If none is given, then keep digging.Does a business use a post office box, operate out of a home or, better, have an actual office or storefront? Thanks to Google Earth, you can see most places in seconds.When I saw a photo of the Washington address on Google Earth, I was dumbfounded. More reasons to keep probing.Next step: Ask questions. The president of the company returned The Watchdog's phone call.Michael R. Loeb, who heads the company that uses three different names to promote the cards (Healthcare Alliance, Script Relief and Rxrelief), answered my questions about its locations.Loeb's office and the company's office are in a Fifth Avenue office building in midtown Manhattan, he said. The company has a call center in Richmond, Va. Then he added, "We also have a footprint in Washington.""When you say footprint, what do you mean?" I asked."An office.""You have an office?""A small office in Washington, yes," he said."Because that address -- traced in Washington -- is a UPS Store," I said."It's a what?""A UPS Store," I repeated. "Is that wrong?""Yeah, there's something not right about that," Loeb said. "You're not the first person to mention that to me.""That comes out of Google Earth," I explained. "So that's wrong? That address you have in Washington is not a UPS Store? It's an actual address of a building?""Uh, no, it might be a UPS Store. Yeah, it's probably the UPS Store. I'm sorry. I didn't hear it the first time around."He was on a car phone and had mentioned that he had trouble hearing me. I spoke up."So you don't necessarily have an office in Washington, but you have an address?""We have an address in Washington, yes."Right there is how one flunks an address check.When I asked whether the return address on the materials confuses people into thinking the government is involved, Loeb said, "I don't see how it would confuse people; I don't see how, frankly, that's relevant."Then why does the company's mail go to Washington?"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."Loeb said his cards (his other card is Pharmacy Discount Network) have been used by almost 2 million Americans in the past three years. His company is a middleman, getting a small fee every time a card is used. The company works with Catamaran, a large pharmacy management company that buys drugs in bulk so prices are lower."We provide discounts on drugs that many insurance plans do not cover," the company says in a taped message for those who call its toll-free number.The Texas Insurance Department oversees discount health card providers. Fifty-two are on the state list. Catamaran is on the list under its old name, Catalyst.RxRelief/Healthcare Alliance/Script Relief is not on the state-approved list, but state officials say an application is pending.A 2-year-old state law requires these companies to "contain a clear and conspicuous statement that the discount health care program is not insurance."No such statement is on the flier. The phrase "This card is not insurance" appears on the card in tiny print.State law prohibits industry marketing materials that "mislead a reasonably prudent person to a false conclusion of a material fact."Insurance Department spokesman John Greeley said the department has not seen the company's marketing materials.And why did Mr. and Mrs. Watchdog get cards in the mail?Loeb told me: "Our target is not the super-well-to-do. Our target is people who we believe don't have the benefit of insurance and can use a card like that. Or people who buy a lot of pharmaceuticals out of network. It's a bunch of guesswork."They guessed wrong with Karen and me.Staff news researcher Cathy Belcher contributed to this report.The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043Twitter @DaveLieber
See the state list of registered health discount companies in Texas at bit.ly/S4kj9w.
Read state law regulating discount healthcare programs by searching on the Web for House Bill 4341, in the 2009 regular session of the Legislature.