By Lynn Olanoff | The Express-Times
on April 13, 2014 at 5:40 PM, updated April 13, 2014 at 7:04 PM

For 17 years, it was Dan Barnes’ job to get travel club members free car rentals and other perks through collective buying.

In 2005, the founder of Bethlehem-based Membership Services Corp. decided to apply that same philosophy to prescription drugs after hearing there was a great need for affordable prescription coverage in the Lehigh Valley.

Barnes started soliciting pharmacies, asking owners if they would offer discounts on prescription drugs if he could increase their customer base by attracting the uninsured and underinsured. They agreed, and the FamilyWize prescription discount card was created.

The free card provides participants with an average of 40 percent off prescription drugs, with some discounts as high as 75 percent.

“It’s the $10, $20, $50 they’re saving on a prescription that can mean lunch or paying a bill,” said Barnes, 53, of Springfield Township, Bucks County.

barnes and gilmoreView full sizeSusan Gilmore and Dan Barnes at FamilyWize’s Bethlehem office.Express-Times Photo | MATT SMITH

FamilyWize started as a Lehigh Valley company but through a partnership with United Way Worldwide, it has grown to a national organization. More than 6.5 million people — including about 39,000 in the Lehigh Valley — have used the card to get discounted prescription drugs in the company’s nine-year history.

FamilyWize is now Barnes’ main business. Membership Services Corp. — now known as Travel Sense — is mainly self-operating after 26 years in business.

A new location

FamilyWize continues to grow from a Membership Services Corp. side project into a good-sized business. The company, which employs about 30 people, just moved into a new office on Spillman Drive in Bethlehem because it had outgrown its Upper Saucon Township space. All employees get full prescription drug coverage — no FamilyWize card needed.

And Barnes sees continued growth. He had hoped the federal Affordable Care Act might solve the nation’s prescription drug coverage problems, but it’s inadvertently creating more, he said.

Some businesses are helping to cover the cost of the new federally mandated care by upping co-pays and deductibles, which is increasing the cost of prescription drugs, Barnes said.

“We’re seeing a huge acceleration of that just within the last 120 days,” he said. “I think that’s happening faster than we or anyone else anticipated.”

Not just for uninsured

The FamilyWize card isn’t just for the uninsured, Barnes said. One in two adults lack adequate prescription drug coverage, and that’s throughout all income levels, he said.

Susan Gilmore, FamilyWize’s executive director of community engagement, used the card herself while she was transitioning insurances after resigning as president of the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley to come to FamilyWize last year. Her son-in-law works for a large company but his health insurance has high deductibles and co-pays, so he uses the card regularly, Gilmore said.

“You can have a job and not have the type of medical coverage to sustain you or your family,” she said. “We tell everyone: Take the card with you to the drug store.”

FamilyWize’s greatest challenge is spreading the word about its free cards. The company first partnered with United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley in 2005 and then expanded its connection to United Way Worldwide a few years later.

United Way works with thousands of community service organizations whose clients need prescription drug assistance, Barnes said. FamilyWize also partners with America’s Promise Alliance and 80,000 other organizations to spread the word about its card.

FamilyWize just renewed its partnership with United Way Worldwide last month for another 10 years. The renewed partnership provides assurance to the program at a time when there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act, Barnes said.

“United Way is focusing on creating opportunity for all by improving health, education and financial stability,” Stacey Stewart, the United States president of United Way Worldwide, said in a statement. “Our Partnership with FamilyWize helps us advance that cause.”