Patients who face long NHS waiting lists and cannot afford to go private are being encouraged to sign up for ‘buy now, pay later’ (BNPL) offers and other loans staff to cover basic health care costs.
The agreements allow people to spread payments over months or years in exchange for quick access to treatments and tests, including MRIs, X-rays and routine surgery.
In some cases, companies appear to be targeting their marketing to those in desperate need of help and short on cash, offering “quick and easy” approval with “immediate” access to funding, the Observer found.
A diagnostic company, MRI Plus, promotes BNPL plans for MRI scans. “Why wait in pain? Reduce your waiting time for treatment on the NHS…Book now and pay later with Klarna,” he said in a recent newspaper advert. Patients can delay payment for 30 days or split it into three interest-free installments.
Chrysalis Finance, which works with large private hospital groups including Circle and Nuffield, offers ‘quick and easy’ personal medical loans ranging from £1,000 to £25,000. The BNPL alternative allows people to spread payments for services, such as hip replacements, over a longer period – up to five years – with annual interest charged at 14.9% between 24 and 60 month, and zero rate options for shorter payment plans.
On social media, Chrysalis says its “simple” process means people can be approved “in seconds”, describing it as “as easy as 123”. His other posts seem to be aimed at people who can’t afford upfront treatment. “Are you waiting for an operation for a long time but you don’t have the funds lying around?” said a recent post on Twitter. Another features a photo of a smiling woman, captioned: “That feeling when you get an almost instant decision on your loan…”
Scan.com, which offers MRIs, CT scans, ultrasounds and X-rays at 150 centers nationwide, offers an interest-free BNPL option through PayPal. Chief executive Dr Lizzie Tuckey said around 5% of customers used payment plans to buy scans, which started at £350. The company is also seeing an increase in buying trends as payday approaches. “We’ve seen more dramatic changes recently because people are feeling mortgage pressure and cost of living pressures,” she said.
Companies say BNPL loans and plans are ethical, interest-free options that help people manage their finances. Such offerings have long been offered in-house by private hospitals for treatments such as cosmetic surgery and dental care, and BNPL is available in many other retail sectors.
But debt campaigners and health experts fear NHS backlogs will force people to use the deals out of desperation.
David Rowland, director of the Center for Health and the Public Interest think tank, said: “Policy makers need to be aware of how underfunding the NHS is pushing unsustainable healthcare costs onto individuals, potentially increasing their indebtedness. . It’s a slippery slope,” he said.
A study by the charity StepChange found that almost half of people with a BNPL loan struggled to meet household bills and loan repayments, while 17% met the definition of charity to be in serious financial difficulty.
In some cases, customers are faced with late payment fees and risk damaging their credit rating or being referred to debt collectors. While traditional loans are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, interest-free loans repaid in less than 12 months – including BNPL products – are exempt.
For patients, having access to credit amid current NHS backlogs can mean the difference between enduring months of pain and anguish or not.
Figures from NHS England show that at the end of May 2023, a record 7.47 million people were waiting to start routine hospital treatment. More than 409,000 had been waiting six weeks or more for key diagnostic tests.