Laura Cameron, then three months pregnant, tripped and fell in a parking lot and landed in the emergency room last May; her blood pressure was low, and she was scared and in pain. She was flat on her back and plugged into a saline drip when a hospital employee approached her gurney to discuss how she would pay her hospital bill.
Though both Cameron, 28, and her husband, Keith, have insurance, the bill would likely come to about $830, the representative said. If that sounded unmanageable, she offered, they could take out a loan through a bank that had a partnership with the hospital.
The hospital employee was “fairly forceful,” said Cameron, who lives in Fayetteville, Ark. “She certainly made it clear she preferred we pay then, or we take this deal with the bank.”
Hospitals are increasingly offering “patient financing” strategies, cooperating with financial institutions to offer on-the-spot loans to make sure patients pay their bills.
Private doctors’ offices and surgery centers have long offered such no- or low-interest financing for procedures not covered by insurance, like plastic surgery, or to patients paying themselves for an expensive test or procedure with a fixed price.
But promoting bank loans at hospitals and, particularly, emergency rooms raises concerns, experts say. For one thing, the cost estimates provided — likely based on a hospital’s list price — may be far higher than the negotiated rate ultimately paid by most insurers. Sick patients, like Cameron, may feel they have no choice but to sign up for a loan since they need treatment. And the quick loan process, usually with no credit check, means they may well be signing on for expenses they can ill afford to pay.
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