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Pay today for a doctor's visit tomorrow

From mobile phone plans to legal advice, a variety of pre-paid services have made their way into the consumer marketplace. Recently, doctors began jumping on the trend with pre-paid health care to patients.

Pre-paid doctor visits are generally offered by individual doctors or physician groups. Some plans require patients to pay an annual fee that includes a specific number of in-office visits or phone consultations, while others offer unlimited services in exchange for a flat monthly payment.

For example, the service DocTalker offers an individual pre-paid plan that begins at $300 a year. The upfront fee buys 60 minutes of time from a medical team member (same day office visits are about 15 minutes, email consultations 10 minutes), as well as discounts on both lab work and additional time should you run out of minutes.

Scope of services

Typically, pre-paid plans only cover care traditionally provided in a physician's office, like checkups or physical exams; however, some diagnostic and laboratory services may be offered at a reduced rate. Hospitalizations, emergency room care and most outpatient surgeries are not among the services included in these plans.

Some health insurance companies will pay for services provided through pre-paid plans, but the doctor's office isn't likely to bill the insurer for you. In fact, many pre-paid doctor services do not accept health insurance, and claim they are able to provide lower prices for medical care because they don't have to pay for the administrative costs of working with insurers.

What to look for

Before committing to a pre-paid health care service, make sure you understand the terms and review the range of care included in the fee. Keep in mind that most plans are non-refundable regardless of whether you use services or not.

Look for value-added features, such as medical staff available 24 hours a day, seven days a week or the option for house calls, which may be available at an additional cost. Also, ask who will be the main health care provider--some medical practices, both traditional and pre-paid clinics, may use nurse practitioners or physician assistants.

Legality of pre-paid health care plans

Pre-paid doctor services are relatively new, and government regulators may be reviewing the legality of these plans in your state. For example, pre-paid health clinics are available in Florida and regulated by the Agency for Health Care Administration and Department of Financial Services, but these pre-paid plans are not permissible in the state of New York. Before committing to a service, check with your state insurance commission or department of insurance for information on local laws and regulations.

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