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ABC7 On Your Side: Medical credit line

July 17, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Americans now charge $45 billion in medical bills on their credit cards. However, a recently released Consumer Reports investigation suggests it is a troubling trend that could cause that number to explode.James Wilkerson said he started getting calls several times a week after being hospitalized in 2007. He had been rushed to the emergency room, nearly dying from complications from treatment for lymphoma. The bill for his four-day stay was $28,000.

"I finally got one call saying they were garnishing my wife's wages and taking away my home," Wilkerson said.

He said the hospital pressured him to settle the bill with a $13,000 line of credit on one of his credit cards.

"Through a search of my credit, they found a closed, non-used, zero-balance account that I didn't even know I had and forced me to use it on a cash-advance basis," Wilkerson said.

"When patients use a credit card to pay for medical expenses, they lose their ability to negotiate lower payments or a longer payment schedule," said Consumer Reports' Andrea Rock. "That puts people at a serious disadvantage."

Rock said hospitals are not the only ones pushing patients to "charge it."

"Capital One, JPMorgan Chase and GE Money have all come out with 'medical' credit cards or loans," Rock said. "They promote them to doctors who in turn offer them to patients."

One card offers "attractive rates on cosmetic procedures" while another touts this testimonial: "It helps us attract more patients and has increased our sales by 25 percent!"

"Interest rates on these cards can jump up very high," Rock said. "The fact is credit card companies make money, doctors and dentists get paid right away, but consumers can end up on the losing end."

James Wilkerson is now struggling with mounting debt. Unable to continue making the minimum $260 monthly payments, he faces an interest rate on his credit card that has jumped to 29.99 percent.

The hospital where James Wilkerson was treated said it respectfully disagrees with his allegations. It said it reached a deeply discounted and mutually acceptable payment plan for his care. The hospital also noted it does help patients get charity care.

It's getting tougher to make ends meet these days, and ABC7 On Your Side is a campaign to help you save money. Watch Eyewitness News for money-saving tips and freebies to help stretch your dollar.

 

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