$40 for unlimited doctor visits? Sign me up

Doctor check's patient's throatAt prices as low as $40 a month, some medical groups are offering something that's cheaper than a gym membership, and just as good for your health -- unlimited access to their services without having to go through an insurance company.

The plans are called Direct Medical Care -- and go by other names such as concierge medicine, retainer-based practices, subscription-based practices -- and cut out health insurance companies by having patients pay doctors directly, resulting in lower prices because doctor's don't have to spend as much time filling out insurance paperwork.

About one-third of a doctor's time is spent on administrative tasks, said Eduardo Cisneros, who with Axel Lapica co-founded Symbeo, a direct medical practice in Bloomfield, N.J. Instead of filling out paperwork, doctors can spend up to 30 minutes with a patient at Symbeo. Preventative care is a primary need among its patients, but many also join so they can get immediate care when they need it, Cisneros said.

"The biggest impetus for people joining is they feel they have the need to see a doctor," he said of the five-month-old business with 80-90% of its customers uninsured.

With 70 million Americans uninsured or under insured -- with 59 million of them without health insurance for part of 2010 --it's a big market. Dan, a 35-year-old Symbeo patient who didn't want his last name used, told WalletPop that he joined the group in June because at the time he didn't have health insurance. He's self-employed and a student, and now has other health insurance. He plans on keeping his direct medical care coverage with Symbeo because it's an inexpensive way to get a second opinion, which he says makes his $40 monthly fee "priceless."

"I don't have the money to pay for what each individual doctor's appointment would cost me," he said.

Dan has hypertension and has had to pay cash out of his pocket to see a specialist, which isn't covered in his direct medical care plan.

"I might not be in dire need of medical help, but I want to keep up on any medical conditions," he said.

Symbeo's plan covers prevention, sick visits, minor stitches and chronic illnesses such as asthma and high cholesterol. It's offices don't have major medical equipment or specialists, although referrals are made. Supplemental insurance for emergencies, such as through Aflac, is needed.

Symbeo's plans per person are $40 a month if paid a year in advance, or $50 a month for three months. The low prices don't equate to low quality by doctors who got their medical degrees through an overseas correspondence course, Cisneros said.

"People have asked us flat out, 'Are these doctors? Are these students? Are these foreigners?' " he said. He answers they are all real doctors.

At Qliance, a direct primary care group in Seattle, the monthly fees range from $44 to $129 depending on age and service preferences for unrestricted access to its doctors and nurse practitioners. Using Qliance with a low-premium insurance plan can reduce health care costs by 40% to 50%, according to the company.

Qliance offers 30- to 60-minute office visits, on-site X-ray, laboratory and a "first-fill" prescription drug dispensary, and no limits for preexisting conditions. Its routine care includes vaccinations, routine blood tests, women's health services, pediatric care, broken bones and ongoing management of chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity.

With a 30-minute visit with a doctor guaranteed, joining a direct medical care plan is like a throwback to the family doctor and having a personal doctor to take care of you. And with prices starting at $40, they're a throwback to a time when medical care wasn't as costly.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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