2011-01-28 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

Commentary By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

In today’s world of seem-ingly everincreasing health care costs, a trip to the doctor’s or dentist’s office can significantly lighten your wallet or pocketbook. While health insurance may cover a large portion of your bill, many plans do not cover all procedures or only pay for a portion of others. Fortu-nately, most health care providers offer a variety of payment plans and options designed to help patients pay their bills. If you find yourself faced with significant medical bills, consider all your options. Be especially careful before signing up for a health care credit card, which is a relatively new payment option that has raised several concerns and been the subject of numerous consumer complaints. If your provider offers the option of paying with a health care credit card, be sure to consider the following information and tips.

Health care debt is the leading cause of individual bankruptcy, and medical bills that go unpaid can severely weaken your credit rating. In order to avoid either of these unfortunate occurrences, those forced to take on medical debt should explore all possible financing options before considering a health care credit card. Many health care providers will work with patients to develop a reasonable payment plan that allows customers to pay in installments without interest charges.

If such an arrangement is not available, and you need to borrow money to cover your bills, consider checking with your bank or credit union to see if they can offer credit with better terms than a health care credit card.

It has been reported that some health care providers regularly encourage patients to sign up for a health care credit card. You should know that health care providers have a financial incentive to encourage payment by credit card since this payment method ensures that the provider will be paid in full. It has also been reported that at least one company offering health care credit cards provides financial incentives to medical professionals when a patient opens an account. If you feel pressured by a provider’s billing staff to sign up for a card, tell them you need some time to think and fully review your options before deciding on a method of payment.

If you choose to open an account, be sure to review and understand all the terms, especially the interest rate and applicable fees, of the card agreement before signing on the dotted line.

Pay close attention to whether your interest rate could increase upon the expiration of a promotional period or if you make a late payment. Many health care credit cards feature zero percent financing during a specified period, generally six to eighteen months, after which a new interest rate, which could be as high as twenty five percent, becomes effective..

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