Monday, May 21, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Debt trap in a doctor's office

Consumers beware. There is another credit product being slyly marketed that comes with high interest rates and steep penalties. It may be right in the office of your doctor or dentist. For cash-strapped consumers, the come-ons sound like a quick solution to covering costly services. In truth, it's a debt trap.

Doctors and dentists are using new consumer finance options to help patients pay bills. What patients often don't understand is that they are not signing up with their medical provider for short-term credit. They are contracting with a national finance company or major bank for a costly loan that can come with interest rates of more than 20 percent and penalty interest rates after a missed payment of more than 30 percent, according to the New York Times.

This form of lending poses many risks for patients. The loan is marketed through a trusted medical practitioner's office, making consumers less aware of the potential for predatory lending. Patients can be asked to commit to yearslong loans while in pain or as they try to get a health problem fixed, making them highly motivated to go along. Meanwhile, medical practitioners can often get paid in full minus an administrative fee, which encourages additional and more expensive services.

Financial services companies are jumping into the business after seeing their profits cut by new regulations protecting financial consumers. Medical credit cards and other types of financing services are offered by General Electric and large banks, including Wells Fargo and Citibank. Some lenders promise doctors and dentists they will dispense with a credit check on patients, meaning loans are given to people who have no proven ability to repay them. Putting patients into unaffordable, high-interest loans to obtain medical services is a form of financial exploitation.

There have been so many complaints of patients being misled on the financial terms and high-pressure sales tactics that attorneys general in some states have filed lawsuits. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office is reviewing 19 complaints it has received since January 2013 on CareCredit, a unit of General Electric. Eleven complaints are against CareCredit directly and eight are against dentists who used CareCredit. This area is also ripe for regulation by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Caring for patients includes protecting them from unfair deals. The American Medical Association and the American Dental Association should oppose this kind of credit for any patient who cannot afford it.

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