With more people looking for affordable health care, the number of health discount card offers are on the rise. However, like identity theft protection companies and companies offering free credit reports, there are many shady players in this game. Arm yourself with the right information and you really can save money on various health and wellness expenses, from prescriptions to eyeglasses.

What Are Health Discount Cards?

Think of legitimate health discount cards as a Triple A membership for health and wellness. You pay a small monthly or annual fee and save on expenses that include:

  • Eye care
  • Prescription medicine
  • Dental exams and procedures
  • Doctor’s visits

Some membership programs offer additional discounts or services like Roadside Assistance or Credit Protection. You can save money by bundling these services together under one discount card.

Some banks, employers and health insurance companies offer health discount cards for free or for a nominal fee as a “thank you” or an incentive for doing business with that company or working there. If you are given a health discount card, make sure to read all the details so you can take full advantage of the discounts.

Consumer Warning: Health Discount Cards Are Not Insurance

Several consumer warnings have been issued to protect uninsured Americans from believing a health discount card is “as good as insurance.” While many discount cards advertise that they have a hospital and doctor discount network, the discounts will rarely (if ever) be as good as having health insurance through your employer.

Several states, including Texas and Florida, now regulate health discount cards. Marketing materials cannot mislead consumers in to thinking these cards are medical insurance or will replace health care coverage and cannot even use terminology frequently used in health insurance sales.

Ways to Save with Health Discount Cards

With that out of the way, however, if you don’t have insurance, a health discount card might afford you some level of cost savings on health care for as little as $20 a month. Just keep in mind it won’t provide enough savings to make a major illness or hospitalization affordable.

“Some discount cards tout the fact that they offer a doctor and hospital discount network,” says Heidi Rasmussen, of the Dallas-based health discount card provider FreshBenies.

Unfortunately, that feature is usually meaningless because it’s included as part of any medical insurance plan.

Health discount cards can help fill gaps in health coverage. Rasmussen says,

Most dental plans don’t cover braces for kids, most vision plans don’t cover designer frames or LASIK and prescription plans don’t cover some drugs, so a discount card could be a huge money saver.

Noting that the National Association of Dental Plans estimates that 47 percent of Americans don’t have dental coverage and the Vision Council estimates that 83% of employers don’t provide vision benefits, Rasmussen says consumers should evaluate their family’s needs against the cost of the card.

If they don’t use corrective eyewear and won’t use the vision discount except for an annual exam, is the monthly cost worth it for the rest of the benefits?

Of course, as with any discount program or even credit card rewards, a health discount card doesn’t pay unless you remember to use it. Read all the materials you receive with your card and write down key points or features somewhere you will see it when you need it. Keep track of your savings so you can decide if it’s worth it to renew after three months, six months, or a year.

Before You Buy a Health Discount Card

Follow these tips before you select a health discount card:

  • Find out just how much the average savings is for the features you’ll most likely use
  • Study the list of providers in their discount network to see if they coincide with providers in your insurance network, are close to your home, and are providers you would feel comfortable using
  • If you’re on specific medication, see if your prescriptions are discounted; compare prices to see if you’d save more just by using generic versions of these drugs and if your doctor would recommend generics

Steer Clear If…

  • The card misrepresents itself as health insurance or a substitute for health insurance
  • Application fees exceed $15; monthly fees for basic health discounts exceed $20
  • If the card’s website or marketing materials uses “hard-sell” tactics or it looks almost impossible to cancel the card once you sign up
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