Afterpay, the rapidly expanding “buy now, pay later” money lender, is extending its business deeper in the healthcare sector – and is about to start trials financing radiology, pharmacy and General Practice services.
The company is thrilled; critics not so much.
Last year, the finance company dipped into the healthcare sector, offering its services to the dental and optometry sectors.
In less than 10 months, more than 1100 practices across Australia have signed up, with dentistry proving the more popular of the two.
One expert told The New Daily the move of money lenders into the health sector took the heat off the government to support Australians, and further cemented the commodification of healthcare.
Afterpay says the move into healthcare financing “is meeting a genuine need” as an alternative to private health insurance.
So you’ve paid off your teeth and your eyes…
Now, as it goes when using Afterpay financing, people will be paying off their medication in four fortnightly instalments – interest-free, but attracting late fees, which make up 20 per cent of the company’s income. That’s a big conversation in itself.
Afterpay says its “healthcare customer” is a little older than the usual borrower: 35 years old compared to 33.
As the pharmacy-related lending takes root – with the abundance of older people on long-term medication – that average is bound to get higher. Is this move intended to chase the ageing dollar?
And what about mentally ill people of all ages who often have complex medicinal needs coupled with financial insecurity? Where do they stand with a company that doesn’t carry out the kind of credit checks that other lenders are obliged to pursue?
And that is more a sad truth than a marketing triumph
Experts told The New Daily the company’s expansion into doctor visits, X-rays and pills is “significant”, “concerning” and yet perhaps “inevitable” – in terms of where the country is going.
Associate Professor Dan Woodman is a University of Melbourne sociologist who runs a longitudinal study called Life Patterns (25 years and counting) that investigates the biographical consequences of young people’s work and study patterns.
So far he’s followed two generations of young Australians, from leaving school up to the beginning of middle age.
Dr Woodman said Afterpay’s expansion in the healthcare sector is further evidence of the Millennial generation living more in the short term because of unreliable shorter-term employment.
“In our study, following Millennials into their 20s, they told us they’re likely to struggle to pay for their everyday costs, and they can’t trust the money is going to keep coming in over the months and years ahead,” Dr Woodman told The New Daily, speaking from Vancouver.
“So they might rely on something like Afterpay in the short term, but they don’t want to sign on to the monthly payments that are associated with private health insurance.”
He said Afterpay serves the idea that you’re doing the best for yourself, when you can afford to do so, with no certainty ahead of doing ever better in a sustainable way.
“It’s quite a culture change,” he said.
“We’re not quite the US, where if something goes wrong you can be completely ruined … but we are getting to that point where we speculate a little bit in the future and hope for the best.
“Paying off your medication or radiology didn’t used to be a thing. Now it is.”
Dr Paul Harrison is director of the Centre for Employee and Consumer Wellbeing at Deakin Business School. He told The New Daily one broad consequence is that “it takes the pressure off government to provide services”.
The Afterpay incursion – and the attendant taking on of debt, “by those who can least afford it” – was one more example of the “commodification of health services”.
Healthcare being commodified by stealth
Dr Harrison said he wasn’t surprised by the company’s move into pharmacy-related financing.
“These types of changes are incremental, and as I am sure you are aware, they creep slowly into the norms of how we operate in the world until they become legitimate,” he said.
Afterpay initially approached The New Daily offering an interview with the company’s head of healthcare, Mathew Cagney. We were then asked to submit questions. We’re still waiting for the answers. To be fair, the company has a lot on its plate.
This week it was reported that Afterpay is being probed by federal financial intelligence agency Austrac for possible breaches of anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing laws.