Barter Boom: Get Cash-Free Dental Work

By Tom Murphy, AP Business Writer

Cash, check or a cord of wood for that doctor visit? As health care costs climb, old-fashioned bartering has seen brisk growth since the economy soured.

Hillsborough, N.J.-resident Robert Josefs traded his Web site designing skills for nearly $1,000 in dental work last year when he had no insurance, and many other patients are learning that health care debts don't always have to be settled with sometimes-precious cash.

Health care bartering has risen dramatically since the recession began, as people lose their health insurance and consumer spending drops, said Allen Zimmelman, a spokesman for the Bellevue, Wash.-based trade exchange ITEX Corp.

ITEX Corp. has seen its health care business rise 45% during the past year. The exchange, which has 24,000 members, now fosters about $1 million a month in health care bartering.

The Web site Craigslist says overall bartering posts have more than doubled over the past year as the recession took hold.

People who barter for health care say the practice allows them to stretch their resources or receive care they couldn't afford. But bartering can be tricky, and not every health care provider will consider it.

Some doctors are open to bartering directly with patients. Others do their trading through an exchange like ITEX.

These exchanges allow people to trade goods and services with other exchange members generally for barter dollars. They can then use those dollars to pay a health care provider who also belongs to the exchange.

There are about 400 exchanges in the United States, Zimmelman said. The Web site offers state-by-state listings.

These exchanges charge membership and transaction fees, and they also help members deal with tax implications of bartering. Hotel rooms, restaurant meals and services like plumbing are among the more popular items traded.

Direct bartering depends on the patient having a service or good the doctor needs. That's a wide range at The Barter Clinic on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Floyd, Va.

Johanna Nichols barters produce from her organic vegetable farm with Susan Osborne, an osteopathic physician. Nichols, a Floyd resident, said she barters less than $600 in care every growing season to help offset a high-deductible insurance plan that covers her family.

"We still are paying our health insurance premiums every month," she said. "It's just kind of an extra way to stretch our dollars."

Osborne's Barter Clinic also accepts clothing, firewood and has counted violin lessons and child care among other unorthodox forms of payment. About 10% of her patients pay by alternative means from time to time. People will suggest a trade, and her office does research to figure the local prices for the proposed barter before deciding whether to accept it.

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