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Discount Medical Cards


Updated January 17, 2007

What Is a Discount Medical Card?

Many people are familiar with dental or vision discount cards, or prescription drug discount cards. Discount medical cards are similar, but promise discounts on a much broader array of health care needs. Discount medical cards can be used for doctor visits, hospitalizations, laboratory testing, and other health care services.

How Do Discount Medical Cards Work?

First and foremost, it is important to understand that discount medical cards are NOT insurance coverage. Discount medical card companies do not pay claims for medical services. Instead, they negotiate with health care providers to offer discounted rates. Enrollees pay a monthly fee to access these negotiated discounts. This monthly fee is almost always significantly less than the cost of insurance premiums. However, enrollees do not receive the discount unless they pay for their health care in full at the time of service. For expensive medical services such as surgery or hospitalizations, this can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do.

Is a Discount Medical Card Right For You?

Discount medical cards do offer lower rates on health care services, assuming you can find a participating provider. Many people believe that this financial assistance is better than none at all. I would argue, however, that medical discount cards are probably not a worthwhile investment.

First of all, discount medical cards are NOT insurance, and thus will not protect you from catastrophic medical costs associated with a serious injury or illness. Enrollees in medical discount card programs run the risk of being responsible for high out-of-pocket costs whenever they require health care services.

Also, because they do offer a limited amount of financial assistance with health care costs, discount medical cards may lull consumers into a false sense of security. Enrollees may stop looking for high-quality, comprehensive health insurance coverage because they feel protected by the medical discount card.

Furthermore, some discount medical card companies have been shown to use false or misleading information to promote their cards. Some enrollees had difficulty obtaining full disclosure of program details before enrollment, or did not receive the promised discounts once enrolled. These consumer difficulties make me reluctant to recommend discount medical cards.

Nevertheless, some people who are unable to obtain affordable health coverage have found discount medical cards to be helpful. If you are interested in enrolling in one of these programs, I strongly urge you to check the company's status with the Better Business Bureau before enrolling. Also, before enrolling:

  • Make sure that the discount medical card covers the services you are likely to need.
  • Verify that your health care provider(s) are participating members.
  • Make sure you understand how much you will be charged for membership, including monthly and one-time fees.
  • Read all the fine print carefully to make sure there are no hidden fees.

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