U.S. healthcare is notoriously expensive, and patients are doing everything they can to reduce the price of medical care, including cutting coupons. Using coupons for medical services has been around for several years, but patients can still easily fall prey to predatory scams and medically unnecessary care. However, for some patients, including those without insurance, using coupons is the only way to make care a little more affordable. Care providers can also use coupons to promote their practices and bring in new patients.
There are now dozens of online healthcare coupon companies looking to sell vouchers and discounts to patients in need of care. The idea of using coupons for healthcare shows how wildly expensive the U.S. healthcare market has become. Take a closer look at this growing phenomenon and how patients are using coupons to reduce the price of care.
How Patients Use Healthcare Coupons
Patients can find coupons for various medical services online on websites such as Groupon, MDsave, WellRX, and other voucher programs. These coupons can be used for a wide range of medical services, including everything from MRIs to back surgery and dental cleanings. Coupon companies like Groupon typically set the prices for deals based on the competition in the area. They also take a large financial cut of the earnings, sometimes as much as half of the final bill. Despite the massive pay decrease, care providers still benefit from all the extra marketing. Patients may see listings and coupons for practices and care providers they may not have heard of otherwise.
Some coupons can dramatically cut the price of care. For example, Virtual Imaging Inc.’s Perimeter Center in Atlanta, Georgia has been issuing coupons for CT scans, along with consultation services, for years, reducing the overall price to just $26, giving patients a 96% discount.
Some care providers may decide to issue coupons on websites in order to stay competitive in their region. If a provider sees that a major competitor is using coupons for care, they may decide to do it as well, so they don’t lose access to certain patients. For many providers, getting paid less than the normal rate is better than not getting paid at all.
Rule and Regulations for Issuing Coupons
There are certain rules and regulations providers must adhere to when issuing coupons for medical services. To help providers comply with the law, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) has issued an advisory opinion (No. 12-02) with the following guidelines for medical coupons:
- Coupons must offer a discount on services. Free services are not allowed. The discount must apply to the entire service, not just the patient’s co-pay. Providers must extend the coupon to the patient’s insurance provider as well.
- Coupons must be listed on third-party websites, not the provider’s own website. When care providers issue their own coupons, they may exert “undue influence when recommending healthcare-related items or services.”
- Discounts must be based on fair market value. Providers and coupon companies cannot change the price of the discount based on other factors, such as how many times patients clicked on a provider’s profile.
- Personal information about the coupon purchaser can’t be shared with the provider.
- Customers cannot pay for the coupon upfront. They must bring the coupon to the care provider and then pay for any services rendered. If customers pay for their coupons upfront, they may come into the provider’s office demanding certain services and the provider may feel pressure to perform these services even if they are medically unnecessary.
The Downsides of Using Coupons for Medical Care
Unfortunately, some healthcare coupons may do more harm than good. Plenty of patients, including low-income individuals and those without insurance, will likely benefit from these discounts, but, as previously stated, they can also steer them towards medically unnecessary care. For example, a patient with back pain may see a coupon for back surgery, but their care provider must first approve of the surgery. Providers should help patients select the right treatment option, not coupon companies.
In other cases, some patients who use coupons may end up paying for medical services more than once. For example, if a patient needs a CT scan and they see a coupon listing for a local provider’s office, they may end up getting the scan for less than they would at a hospital. However, based on the results of the initial CT scan, the patient may need surgery, in which case they may be sent to a local hospital for treatment. Yet, there’s a good chance the hospital will complete another CT scan before completing the operation, which means the patient may end up paying twice.
Patients can also fall for online schemes and fraudulent voucher programs. Some online coupon websites may be selling false discounts with upfront fees. Patients should touch base with the provider in question to make sure the discount is valid before handing over their personal information to the company issuing the coupon.
As a care provider, talk to your patients about the dos and don’ts of using medical coupons, especially if some of your patients are having trouble paying for care.