Discount Health Cards: What You Should Know

October 21, 2010

If you watch enough afternoon or late-night television, you’ll eventually see ads for discount health cards. While these may seem tempting, especially if you’re waiting for state insurance exchanges to take effect, or you lost your insurance benefits because you lost a job and COBRA benefits have either not yet begun, or already ended, please educate yourself about them.

Here are five key facts about discount health cards:

  1. The Discounts May Be Exaggerated: Not only do these cards often include hidden fees, but the language is often vague. For example: “save up to 60%” means that your discount could be as little as 1, 2, or 3%. And if you see them touting “guaranteed benefits” ask exactly what is being guaranteed, and how the guarantee is being enforced.
  2. Discount Cards Are NOT Actual Health Coverage: These cards are not designed to take the place of actual health insurance. Instead, they’re meant to save you money if you don’t already have coverage. Most of these cards are meant for clinic visits, not emergency room runs, so check to see what services are discounted, and if you have existing health care insurance, don’t cancel it in favor of a card. Ever.
  3. Not Universally Accepted: The clinic where you purchase your discount health card will most likely honor it indefinitely, as will the doctors who belong to their network, but cards purchased anywhere else may come with restrictions on where you may seek care, or may not be honored at all. Read the fine print before you commit to anything.
  4. There Will Still Be Bills: Discount health cards generally give you a flat fee for “sick” visits – like if you need to be treated for a sinus infection – and a 20% discount on all other services for a low monthly fee ($18-$25 in many cases). However, you’ll still be responsible for lab tests, x-rays, scans, and (unless you also belong to a discount prescription plan) any medications you’re being prescribed.
  5. Ripe for Identity Theft: The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud has caught at least one discount health card company using the credit card numbers and checking account information provided by consumers to bill unauthorized charges even when the prospective customers had NOT purchased the actual cards. Only buy from a company you trust, and check them out with the Better Business Bureau before you spend a cent. Also, be certain that they have a privacy policy in place, and a way to make sure it gets enforced.

Not all discount health cards are bad or dangerous, but as with any purchase, your mileage may vary. Be a savvy shopper – your health depends on it.