Doctor's Visit? Think Twice Before Using a Card


Recent data indicates that more people are paying for medical care with their credit cards. High unemployment and more expensive health care were cited as big reasons why health care consumers have pivoted towards plastic.

According to the health care analytical firm McKinsey Consulting, approximately 25% of the $294 billion of out-of-market medical care costs (usually earmarked for doctor’s visit and many prescription drug purchases) are paid for with credit cards. That’s almost $75 billion. But by 2015, McKinsey estimates, that the number will double to $150 billion.

But that’s not all. A Brandeis University consortium called The Access Project calculates that that poor and middle-class American consumers with medical debt incurred an average of $11,623 in credit card debt. Compare that to $7,964 for households with no medical debts on their credit card statements.

Okay, scary enough. So how can you avoid being a card-carrying member of that pricey group? Here are some tips.

Open a health care savings account – Health care savings accounts enable you to stash money away for medical bills on a tax-advantaged basis, and allow you to still have a high-premium health insurance package to help pay for the really big medical expenses. By stashing $50 or $100 per month in an HSA, you’ll have the money to pay for the odd check-up or trip to the doctor to address that winter flu. Credit cards are all about losing financial control while Health Savings Accounts are all about giving you financial control. Choose appropriately.

Chat up your doctor – Physicians feel your pain, medically and financially. After all, they’re the ones that have to deal with getting paid from parsimonious private health insurance companies. So, offer to pay your doctor cash on the barrel, and see if you can negotiate a discount. Also, ask for an installment plan over a few months – and put some good faith money down on deposit. If worse comes to worse, ask if there are any low-cost providers in your community (with good credentials) that your doctor can also refer you to. You can always come back to your doctor when your financial fortune changes for the better.

Ask your credit card company to cut you a break – If you absolutely have to use your credit card to pay your doctor bills (again, a risky idea, but no shame in that in these tough economic times), ask your credit card company to finance your medical care payments. It’s not so far-fetched. Consumer Reports says that some credit card companies are already exploring medical care payment options.

Square off against your health insurer – Just because you have health insurance doesn’t mean you have the right health insurance for you or your family. You might be able to shave off a few bucks from your monthly health insurance costs by talking to your health insurance carrier. They usually have different plans, and it might mean taking a higher premium, but the money you need to pay your smaller medical bills just might be available in a new health care plan.

No doubt, millions of Americans are carrying a big financial burden these days. But using your credit card to pay your doctor (and medical) bills is a long-term prescription for weak financial health.

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