A Guide to Discount Health Cards

In these troubled economic times, many people are looking for cheap health insurance options, either to take the place of employee benefits plans after COBRA benefits run out, or because they never had employee benefits, and winter weather is compromising their good health. One offer that many find tempting is discount health cards, but be careful: instead of financial help, you may find fraud.

Discount health cards are widely available from drugstores, walk-in clinics, and in magazine advertisements, and most offer the same things: for a monthly fee, they claim to save customers money by offering discounts on doctor visits, hospital stays, prescription drugs, and in some cases, even dental and vision care.

Some such cards really do provide money-saving benefits for people that don’t have health insurance, but they can be deceptive and confusing because they are not insurance. People who have them must still pay their medical bills themselves.

Here’s what anyone considering discount health cards should know about them:

* Not Health Coverage: Because these are discount cards, not actual health insurance, it’s crucial not to cancel or discontinue any health insurance you may already have. As well, you should check with local hospitals and small insurers for affordable plans. Health discount cards offer discounts on selected services only: most will be useless if you have to visit an emergency room.
* Medical Bills. Anything over the cost of a basic doctor visit is usually your responsibility. A common plan gives you a $68 “sick visit” and 20% discounts on all services for $18/month, but that visit doesn’t include the cost of lab tests – and the discount still leaves a lot to pay for out of pocket.
* Discounts May Be Exaggerated: There are often hidden administrative fees and costs that will add more than your discount back to your bill.
* Health Care May Be Compromised: If you buy a discount health card from a walk-in clinic, chances are that the doctors in their network will honor it, but cards purchased from other sources may be completely fraudulent, with no actual physicians willing to accept them. Be very careful.
* Identity Theft: According to the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, at least one company selling discount health cards obtained credit card numbers and checking account information and then billed unauthorized charges even when the prospective customers had NOT purchased the discount cards.

If you are still considering such a card, please be certain to ask the right questions before you commit to anything, so that you are completely informed, and be on the lookout for sales pitches that offer vague information, such as:

  • “Save up to 60% on health care.” ß The term “up to” means that your actual discount could be anything from nothing to 60%.
  • “Affordable health coverage” ß Be wary of the term “coverage.” It probably really isn’t insurance coverage. ASK THEM.
  • “Guaranteed benefits.” ßExactly what is guaranteed, and how is the guarantee enforced?

Other things to check out:

  • Read the fine print. If it doesn’t agree with the promises in the sales pitches, do not buy the card.
  • Does it offer what you need? Find out exactly what medical conditions, treatments, and medications are covered. Are the medications you need offered in the plan? If so, is the discount better than the $4 prescriptions for generics offered by many grocery stores?
  • Prices. Are all the prices clearly listed, and are they really discounted? What does your doctor charge for an office visit without buying their clinic’s discount card?
  • Refunds. If you find that the card does not deliver what was promised, can you get your money back?

Not every discount health card is a scam. Many do provide valuable benefits to those who are un- or under-insured, but it is vitally important that you do the research before buying anything, and be certain you know exactly what you are getting.

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