Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Discount health cards not a panacea for uninsured

Millions of people who don't have health insurance are turning to health discount cards as a way to save money while getting the care they need. They're attracted by the large provider networks, deep discounts and low monthly fees that the discount programs advertise.

"Only $4 a day for a family," reads one company's pitch. "Discounts from 10 percent to 60 percent," reads another.

But government officials and consumer advocates say many people may not know what they're getting for their money. Most important, some consumers may not realize that these cards are not the same as health insurance.

The discount plans are more like coupons, in that they offer discounts on services and products from participating providers and vendors. Users typically pay a monthly or quarterly fee to be part of the discount plan, which is usually much cheaper than health insurance premiums.

But just because you have a discount, it doesn't mean you can actually afford the service. And if you can't get to the doctors who offer the discount, it's of no value either.

So if you're not careful, you could be paying for nothing.

Reputable programs make it clear what they can do for you. Others don't.

"This industry is exploding so fast that it's rife with crooks whose only motive is to separate you from your money through deceptive and outright fraudulent advertising and programs," said James Quiggle, spokesman for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit watchdog group.

Many companies, Quiggle said, blur the line between discount card programs and insurance by using what he calls weasel words such as "health coverage" and "health benefits" to describe their plans.

More than 28 million people use the discount plans, according to the Consumer Health Alliance, the national trade association for the discount health industry. But Quiggle and others say the cards are getting more popular, given rising unemployment and the skyrocketing cost of health insurance.

"Discount health cards have exploded in the last four to five years because you have 46 million people without health insurance," he said. "That's a huge pool of potential victims."

The cards have also become more accessible than ever. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida recently struck a deal to sell two of its cards at more than 1,000 Winn-Dixie and CVS stores across the state. One is a $59 card that can be used toward the purchase of one of the company's health plans. The other is a $19 FamilyBlue card that offers discounts for prescription drugs and dental and vision services.

The $19 FamilyBlue card covers an entire family and is good for three months. Its brochure estimates that cardholders can save $34 on one dental cleaning, $38 on eyeglasses and $72 on prescription generic high blood pressure medication.

Blue Cross Blue Shield spokesman Paul Kluding said the cards could be attractive options for people who are uninsured, or people who have medical insurance but not vision or dental coverage.

"However, we are aware that some insured customers are purchasing the cards to use as a gift for family and friends," he said.

Recognizing the growth of the discount health card industry, and the complaints consumers were filing, the state Legislature in 2004 adopted regulations that companies must follow.

Discount medical plan organizations must be licensed by the state Office of Insurance Regulation and must disclose prominently that the plans they offer are not insurance. Currently, 41 companies are licensed by the state to sell discount plans.

Quiggle says established insurers like Blue Cross Blue Shield are more likely to deliver as promised, but there are also legitimate companies that aren't big-name insurers, he said.

The key, he said, is doing your homework before you buy. He suggests consumers call doctors on the discount plan's provider list to make sure they're part of the plan and willing to give the promised discounts. He says consumers also should read the fine print — some plans include hidden fees that could erode any discounts.

The state Department of Financial Services, which fields complaints from consumers about discount medical plans, includes a list of warning signs of possible fraudulent plans on its Web site.

Among them: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!"

Richard Martin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330

on the web

The Florida Department of Financial Services Web site offers a consumer guide to medical discount cards. Go to myfloridacfo.com/Consumers/Guides/Health/index.htm and click on the link to "medical discount program."

You can also call the department's Division of Consumer Services for information toll-free at 1-877-693-5236.

Discount health cards not a panacea for uninsured 01/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 4:43pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Astros rout Yankees to force Game 7 of AL Championship Series

    Ml

    HOUSTON — Justin Verlander pitched seven shutout innings to outduel Luis Severino for the second time, and the Astros bats came alive in their return home as Houston routed the Yankees 7-1 Friday night and forced a decisive Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

    The Astros’ Brian McCann, who has struggled during the ALCS, breaks a scoreless tie with an RBI double during the fifth inning off Yankees starter Luis Severino.
  2. Review: Faith Hill and Tim McGraw shower love, star power on Tampa's Amalie Arena

    Blogs

    Near the end of their potent new duet Break First, Tim McGraw stopped singing, and let Faith Hill's powerhouse voice take over.

    Faith Hill and Tim McGraw performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Oct. 20, 2017.
  3. Senate to take up AUMF debate as Trump defends reaction to Niger attack

    World

    WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is taking up a long-awaited debate about authorizing military force against the Islamic State as President Trump comes under unprecedented public scrutiny for his treatment of dead soldiers' families, following an ambush on troops helping to fight Islamic …

  4. In fear and vigilance, a Tampa neighborhood holds its breath

    K12

    TAMPA — There was a time, not long ago, when Wayne Capaz would go for a stroll at night and Christina Rodriguez would shop whenever she wanted. Michael Fuller would go to his night job as a line cook, not too worried about his wife at home.

    More than 50 people gathered and walked in the Southeast Seminole Heights community Friday to pay respects to the victims of three shootings. The crowd took a moment of silence at the corner of 11th Street and East New Orleans where Monica Hoffa was found dead. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL  |  Times]
  5. Fennelly: What's not to like about Lightning's start?

    Lightning Strikes

    BRANDON — No one is engraving the Stanley Cup. No one has begun stuffing the league MVP ballot box for Nikita Kucherov.

    The Lightning, with a win tonight, would match the best start in franchise history, 7-1-1 in the 2003-04 Cup season.