March is Consumer Month and the Council for Medical Schemes (CMS) has done its bit in educating consumers about their rights.

March is Consumer Month and the Council for Medical Schemes (CMS) has done its bit in educating consumers about their rights.

The council is a member of the National Consumer Protection Forum, which also comprises the Department of Trade and Industry, nine provincial consumer affairs directorates, the Financial Services Board, the National Energy Regulator and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa.

All these entities have embarked on a campaign to educate consumers on how to get redress and, more importantly, how to enforce their rights.

In celebrating World Consumer Rights Day on March 15, the forum adopted as its theme: "Surviving the tough economic conditions: what are consumers' options?"

Milly Viljoen, manager for Consumer Education and Trustee Training at the CMS, said consumers had been experiencing tough economic conditions lately and were finding it increasingly difficult to meet monthly expenses.

She said when consumers felt financial strain and the need to cut back on expenses, the first to be cancelled was normally their medical scheme contributions and or other insurance policies.

She advised against this.

"There are various ways to cope with financial obligations and still efficiently manage membership without having to cancel them."

She gave these tips to help medical schemes members to reduce medical expenses and keep their membership:

l Don't cancel your medical scheme membership. Consider a cheaper option or shop around for a more affordable scheme. Contact the CMS or visit their website for a list of all the registered schemes in the country;

l Compare your current benefit option with at least five similar options on different medical schemes. Do this yearly to ensure value for your money;

l Don't skip payments. You will not be covered should anything happen to you or your dependants;

l Before paying accounts that have not been fully paid, check with your scheme or the CMS whether the condition is a prescribed minimum benefit benefit (PMB) condition. If it is, your scheme is liable for the full payment of the account. PMBs cannot be paid from a savings account or day-to-day benefits;

l Understand fully what you are covered for in terms of your benefit option. Failure to do so can lead to added financial difficulty when you have to pay for bills that are not covered;

l Remember to ask your service provider before she/he treats you whether she/he charges private or scheme rates;

l Be aware that there is a maximum amount that schemes will pay on all options;

l Negotiate for a better rate if your healthcare provider intends charging more than what your scheme is willing to pay;

l Don't sign blank forms when asked to do so by your healthcare provider. She/he might charge you for services not rendered and if the benefit is unavailable when you have depleted your funds, you will be liable to pay for the account yourself; and

l Know your rights. Should you feel that you've been treated unfairly by your scheme and/or find yourself with huge bills that should have been settled by your scheme, contact the CMS for assistance.

Viljoen said: "Remember that you might find yourself in deeper financial difficulty having cancelled your membership and now having to pay yourself for expensive medical treatments

"This added burden can lead to developing stress-related ailments, which in themselves are very costly to treat.

"It is wiser to downgrade your lifestyle, maintain your membership, remain healthy and enjoy peace of mind knowing that you are covered for unexpected high-cost events such as a car accident."