Watch out for hospital payment plans

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They aren't payment plans at all.

They're loans from major lenders.

Hospitals, doctors and dentists have begun pushing patients to borrow up to $40,000 to pay for all or parts of care not covered by their insurance.

In most cases, the patient is signing up for medical credit cards that were specially created to be sold through health care providers.

In many instances, patients are in a vulnerable position when they receive these sales pitches and don't understand that they're taking out a loan from the likes of GE Money, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase.

Administrators who explain the loans often tout their low minimum payments and the fact that they're interest free for 12 or 24 months.

What they don't explain is that consumers who can only afford those minimum payments fail to repay the entire amount of the loan during the interest-free period and are retroactively charged interest on the entire amount they borrowed, at rates as high as 28%.

The new credit cards also will show up on your credit report as revolving loans. That could affect your credit score, and, if you have trouble making the payments, you'll be dealing with the lender, not the hospital or doctor's office.

Health care providers love these plans because it guarantees that they get paid right away. In fact, doctors and dentists have financial incentives under these arrangements to encourage patients to sign up for more expensive treatments and to steer them toward extending financing plans that take a smaller cut of the practitioners' fee.

A study by Consumer Reports found some scary similarities to subprime mortgages because the cost of these medical loans can unexpectedly soar and they're being given to patients who may not be able to keep up with the payments.

If you must borrow money for medical care, you're far better off using a home equity line of credit or even a general-purpose credit card with a low interest rate.

Our extensive database of credit card programs is a good place to look for all types of credit cards, including those that offer low interest rates.