Insurer Running VeriChip Trial

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey is inviting chronically ill policyholders to participate in a two-year trial to test implanted RFID tags.

Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, is initiating a two-year clinical trial to test the use of an implantable RFID tag, the VeriChip, to access the medical records of chronically ill patients. If a patient participating in the trial is admitted to the emergency room at New Jersey's Hackensack Medical Center, staff there will use a handheld reader (interrogator) to read the tag's 16-digit ID and call up the patient's medical files in a database.

The tags, readers and database comprise the VeriMed system marketed by VeriChip Corp., based in Delray Beach, Fla. The system is designed to ensure that health-care workers access important health records, such as preexisting conditions or drug allergies, even if the patient cannot communicate his or her name or other important details. The insurance company is holding the trial to see if VeriMed works—and if it can reduce costs associated with misdiagnoses, drug reactions and duplicated or unnecessary medical tests.

Horizon is inviting 600 of its chronically ill policyholders to participate in the trial, and hopes 280 will actually enroll. Horizon will cover the $200 fee that individuals must pay to have the tag implanted, as well as the $80 monthly subscription. Typically, the service changes $20 per month for patients to record just their name, family and physician contact info, and a list of allergies and directives regarding organ donations and resuscitation. The monthly cost is $80 per month for those who record preexisting medical conditions, information about prior surgeries and pharmaceutical information.

If the trial proves successful in reducing costs and improving the medical care patients receive at Hackensack, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey might offer coverage of the implant and VeriMed service for its chronically ill policyholders on a permanent basis, says Tom Rubino, Horizon's director of public affairs. The firm insures patients at almost every hospital in New Jersey, he explains. At present, seven New Jersey hospitals—Beth Israel, Clara Maass, Columbus, Hackensack, Kimball, Newark, Ocean and PBI Regional—are all equipped to read the tags and access the VeriMed database.

"The way we see it," Rubino says, "[VeriMed] might save Horizon costs because it could help doctors avoid drug interactions or wrong diagnoses that lead to longer hospital stays. People who have chronic diseases might not be able to communicate their medical history [while being admitted]."

The policyholders Horizon is asking to participate in the trial suffer from such diseases as diabetes, epilepsy and heart disease. Those who wish to have the VeriChip removed once the trial is complete will be able to do so. Participants will also be allowed to review and approve medical data associated with their VeriChip ID in the VeriMed database, which will include information about their medical condition and history, as well as lab test data and pharmaceutical information maintained by Horizon. While communication between the VeriChip and interrogator is not protected by data encryption, a password or other security methods, users do need a password, unique for each tag ID, to access the VeriMed database via the Internet and retrieve patient information.

VeriChip Corp.'s implantable tag is roughly the size of a grain of rice. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the tag for human use in 2004. The passive transponders transmit their IDs by means of a 134 kHz signal, and can be read up to 6 inches from a patient's upper arm, where the tag is inserted.