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Health care cards carry same credit risks

These cards are similar -- or worse -- than regular plastic

By

To Her Credit
To Her Credit, Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs. See her website SallyHerigstad.com for more personal finance tips and free budgeting worksheets.
Ask Sally a question, or read her previous answers in the To Her Credit archive
Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear To Her Credit,
I need to have an MRI done and was told that I should apply for the CareCredit Card to pay for this. I don't have any insurance, and I only have a part-time job. I am single. Is there a person I can talk to about this or even about consolidating my other credit card bills? -- Suzanne

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Suzanne,
The CareCredit card is one of several credit cards designed to help people pay for health care expenses. Health care providers sometimes encourage people to use health care credit cards so the providers don't need to worry about collecting the money. Using that type of card may not always be in your best interest as the patient, however.

For one thing, you can probably make interest-free payments directly to the hospital or imaging center for your MRI. "The provider will take payments," says Beverly Gossage, founder of HSA Benefits Consulting. "I don't know a hospital that charges interest." Gossage is skeptical about getting another credit card just for health care expenses. "I think that's really rather foolish when the provider will allow you to make payments," she says.

It's often difficult to make the best financial decisions when your doctor says you need a medical procedure. Gossage worries that people get a sales pitch in a doctor's office or a hospital, and don't know exactly what they're signing up for. It's easy for them to feel pressured by medical providers. "If the person at the front desk says, 'Our financial department is going to expect to have this payment upfront, or you can get this card,' what are you going to do?" she says.

Health care cards are just one choice in controlling medical costs (See: 15 tips for paying high medical bills.) Before you sign up for a health care card, take these steps:

1. Find out what the MRI will cost and ask if you can get a discount, even though you don't have insurance. You probably won't get the same discount they give the insurance companies, but they can give a discount.

Some companies and nonprofit organizations offer to help you negotiate a discount, but Gossage says you can do it yourself. "People seem to manage talking to their cell phone provider all the time," she says. They can do the same with their medical bills. "There are a lot of people who get that bill and don't know they can say, 'I'd like to talk about my bill.'"

2. Ask if they will accept payments. If they won't, you can try other MRI providers in your area.

3. If you decide you need a health care card to get the MRI, choose the card carefully. Don't take the first ad you see for any credit card; let them compete for your business. See your options on this health credit card comparison chart.

Health care cards work a little different from regular credit cards. Some of them have high annual fees or monthly maintenance expenses. They may advertise low- or no-interest credit, but that may only be true if you pay the balance within a certain period of time or if you get in on a certain promotion. It's up to you to read the contract and understand exactly what you are agreeing to before you sign.

If you use a health care card to pay for the MRI, be vigilant about making every payment on time. Some cards charge little or no interest for up to 18 months if you make every payment on time, but if you miss one payment, they charge higher interest retroactively to the very beginning. That could be a rude shock!

See related: 15 tips for paying high medical bills, Comparing health care credit options, Health care credit cards rise to fill insurance gap

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Published: October 23, 2009


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Updated: 09-27-2016


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