Think through the terms before you apply. That sounds like a no-brainer, but consumers often don't read the fine print associated with medical credit cards.
"Even in good circumstances, credit card agreements can be difficult to understand. So I'm concerned that someone who applies for one of these cards while in a doctor's office and is worried about paying for medical care might not read the terms carefully," Harzog says.
Nathan Casper, a 29-year-old marketing manager in Las Vegas, recalls standing at the receptionist's desk at the dentist in early 2012 and being told what his out-of-pocket costs for two root canals would be.
"Even with dental insurance, the out-of-pocket costs were nearly $2,000," Casper says. "I think the poor receptionist saw the look of panic on my face as I tried to figure out how on earth I was going to pay for that."
She then pointed him toward a CareCredit pamphlet. Casper went home, researched CareCredit online, applied, was accepted and had a good experience.
Thinking over the terms first is crucial. Schneiderman's office investigated CareCredit, and the attorney general's office announced its conclusions on its website: "The investigation found that the application process is often rushed; providers frequently fail to inform consumers of the basic terms of the card, and patients incur costly credit charges that they initially mistake for payment plans."
Pay right away and every month. Casper had a good experience with his health care credit card because he paid down his debt regularly and knew he could afford the monthly payments.
"I set up an autopay. It took $150 out of my account each month until it was paid off, and I never paid a cent of interest. Sure beats the heck out of the 18-plus percent I would have had to pay had I put it on my Visa," Casper says.
[See: A Consumer's Guide to Obamacare.]
The only downside for Casper: "I get monthly emails from the company, trying to interest me in different medical procedures and, as of late, veterinary services that they can help me fund."
For those with low income or mounting debts who are reluctant to take out another loan but need that root canal or foot surgery, Harzog suggests asking your physician if he or she can offer a discount. Some medical practices may let you pay the loan off every month without interest traps, or they may be able to steer you toward another lower-cost alternative, such as a medical school. But unfortunately, too often, the medical credit card is the alternative.