A large health insurer has come out with a new option for employers that have decided not to offer major medical coverage.

Aetna Inc., Hartford, has developed a Vital Savings on Health prepaid debit card program.

Employees who have the cards can use them to get immediate, preferred provider organization-like discounts in the offices of any health care providers who can accept Visa cards and choose to participate in the discount network.

The card can provide discounts of about 10% to 50% on routine doctor visits and about 10% to 40% off the average wholesale price of prescription drugs, Aetna says.

The new program should be more attractive to doctors than most discount card programs, because the doctors can collect payments immediately through the debit card, Aetna says.

Aetna will start by offering the card to employers of all sizes in September in Denver and Southern New Jersey.

Aetna will add the Raleigh, N.C., and Tampa, Fla., markets in October, and it will add more markets in 2007, the company says.

Aetna also offers drug, dental and long term care discount card programs.