Medical expenses can throw your budget out of whack if you’re uninsured or your health insurance policy won’t cover the entire cost. In fact, a majority of U.S. bankruptcies are related to medical debt.
Staring down a big medical bill can be nerve-wracking if you don’t have enough in emergency savings to cover it.
Some people may turn to personal loans or a home equity line of credit to pay for it. But, if you don’t own a home or you can’t qualify for a loan, there’s a third popular choice: a healthcare credit card.
Quick answer: Medical credit cards are specifically used only for paying for healthcare costs and they tend to offer provide special financing for the expenses.
Healthcare credit cards are a flexible way to cover medical expenses, but they’re not the same as the typical credit card that you have in your wallet. See how they work and what you can expect if you decide to open one.
Healthcare Credit Cards Explained
Healthcare credit cards, also known as medical credit cards, are a type of credit designed just for medical expenses - not for everyday spending. That includes:
- Medical care
- Dental care
- Vision care
- Orthodontic care
- Hearing services
- Cosmetic surgery
Some cards cast a wider net than others, allowing you to use them for any health-related product or service.
Just like a regular credit card, these cards are issued through banks. They’re sometimes co-branded with specific insurance companies.
How Healthcare Credit Cards Work
If you’ve ever had a credit card, you probably know how a healthcare credit card would work. You have a set credit limit and an annual percentage rate (APR) that's based on your credit history.
When there’s a balance due, you’re expected to make a minimum payment each month. If you don’t pay in full, you’ll pay interest unless you’re taking advantage of a promotional offer that has a special interest rate (usually 0% APR).
Medical credit cards work along the same lines but they usually feature promotional financing.
Every time you charge a medical expense to the card, you have a certain period of time when that specific balance is subject to a lower interest rate.
The CareCredit card, for example, lets you choose between two different options when you sign up.
You can either pay no interest for 6, 12, 18, or 24 months or pay a reduced rate for 24, 36, 48, or 60 months. Your options may vary based on the amount of the medical expense.
There are cards that offer a revolving credit line that you can use over and over while others give you enough credit to cover the amount of the expense you’re charging. Some cards charge an annual fee, but not all do.
Limits on Providers and Qualifying Expenses
If you’re shopping around for a medical credit card, there are a few things to keep in mind. One, you may not be able to use the card at all healthcare providers.
The other potential stumbling block is the fact that not every medical expense will qualify for a promotional financing deal. For instance, your card may cover cataract surgery at a 0% rate, but if you want to get LASIK, the regular APR may apply.
How a Healthcare Credit Card Helps You
Healthcare credit cards aren’t right for everyone but they can be a financial lifesaver for some people. Here’s why you might choose a medical credit card over another financing option.
You need to pay for medical expenses over time
When a doctor’s office or hospital sends you a bill for health care services they expect you to pay up all right away.
They sometimes do offer payment plans if you ask for one, but not often with as long of a timeline as you might get on a medical credit card.
A medical credit card lets you break the debt down into smaller payments so you don’t have to drain your cash reserves all at once.
You don’t want to delay putting off care
Having health insurance only takes you so far if you can’t afford to cover your deductible. A healthcare credit card means you’re able to see a doctor right away instead of having to wait until you save up the money.
You need a streamlined way to track medical spending
Medical expenses are tax-deductible for qualifying taxpayers but tracking down receipts for prescriptions, co-pays, or other charges can be a nightmare. If you’re using a dedicated credit card just for these costs, it’s a lot easier to get your records organized at tax time.
You want to improve your credit
Healthcare credit card issuers report your account activity to the credit reporting bureaus. If you’re making your payments on time each month and paying down the balance, that can help your credit score over time.
What to Watch For With Medical Credit Cards
To keep things balanced, it’s only fair that we point out some of the drawbacks you might find with a healthcare credit card. Here’s what you need to keep in mind before applying for one.
You could end up with expensive debt
Promotional financing offers don't last forever. If you don't pay the card off before the promotional APR period expires, the regular rate kicks in.
At that point, your medical debt can become a lot more expensive if the card comes with a steep interest rate.
You have to follow the card’s guidelines to a tee
Unlike a regular credit that you can swipe anywhere, health care credit cards are specific about how you can use them.
You have to work with a health care provider that accepts the card for one thing. Besides that, you can only use the card for selected services and not everything is eligible for promotional financing.
You could do more harm than good to your credit
While a healthcare credit card can help you to build credit, it can also destroy it if you’re not careful.
Missing a single payment could knock up to 100 points off your credit score, so it pays to be responsible with one of these cards.
Opening a Healthcare Credit Card
Now that you understand how a healthcare credit card works and what the pros and cons are, the next question is where do you get one?
A quick online search will allow you to find several healthcare credit cards that are available to the public.
The next place to check is at your health care provider’s office.
If your doctor works with a health care card issuer, you can fill out the application form right in the office and approval is often instant. Your insurance company may also be able to clue you in about where to find one of these cards.
CareCredit, Wells Fargo, and Citi Among the Major Issuers
There are many issuers of medical credit cards, but CareCredit is the most popular major healthcare credit card issuer.
Citi and Wells Fargo also offer credit cards just for medical expenses. Take a look at this quick overview of each card to get an idea of how they compare.
The CareCredit card is accepted at more than 175,000 service providers and you can use one of two different promotional financing offers to cover things like vision care, dentistry, hearing care, cosmetic surgery, LASIK, and dermatology services.
Citi Health Card
With the Citi Health card, you can charge a variety of medical costs, including insurance deductibles and co-pays, dental care, orthodontic care, vision services, and hearing services at participating provider offices.
Wells Fargo Health Advantage Credit Card
The Wells Fargo Health Advantage credit card pays for dental and hearing care, LASIK, refractive surgery, and even veterinary care, with members relatively low APR.
Alternatives May Be Cheaper
To wrap things up, we decided to take a look at a few alternatives to health care credit cards. Here are some other ways to pay that you might consider first.
Negotiate a Discount
Health care providers want to get paid and, sometimes, they may be willing to cut you a break on the cost of care. It’s worth your time to call up your doctor’s office and ask if they can give you a discount. Even if they only knock off 10%, that’s still money that you won’t have to pay.
Set Up a Payment Plan
If your doctor won’t give you a discount, all is not lost.
You may still be able to get around using a high-interest credit card by working out a payment plan with their office. They could offer you a lower rate or a no-interest deal as long as you agree to make a set number of fixed payments over time.
Get a Medical Installment Loan
A healthcare credit card can only go so far but if you have a major expense to cover, a medical installment loan may be the better choice.
Depending on who you get a loan with, you could borrow up to tens of thousands of dollars and stretch the repayment out over a period of 60 months. The APR range for health care installment loans typically starts at around 5% to 6%, so the interest isn’t too high.
Should You Apply for a Medical Credit Card?
Medical credit cards are best for someone who can’t pay off a big medical expense all at once but is able to manage the monthly payments for a promotional financing offer.
You should only think about applying if you’re sure you can pay the bill off before the promotional period ends to avoid hefty interest or finance charges.