If you don't have health insurance, you are not alone. Millions of Americans are currently without health insurance and often are unable to secure coverage, whether because it's cost prohibitive or due to preexisting conditions. In this situation, it's so easy to put off much-needed care because, let's face it, medical care in the United States is expensive.
While medical care IS expensive, it doesn't have to break your budget if you are uninsured. There are many low-cost, and free, ways of obtaining the medical care you need.
Search http://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov/ to see if there is a federally-qualified health center in your area. These clinics are funded by the government and provide care on a sliding-fee scale, and they also accept Medicaid and Medicare for payment. Often, they are able to provide primary care for the entire family. Some centers even offer additional services, such as dental and mental health services.
- Contact your local health department and ask about free clinics in your area. You can also search online using the search term free clinics (put your area here). These clinics are often staffed by local doctors who volunteer their time to treat the uninsured at no cost -- although most do request a donation, if you can afford it. This is not an option to use if you are need of long-term primary care, but if you have the flu or a sinus infection, a child has an ear infection or strep throat, these clinics can be a Godsend. In addition to diagnosing you, these clinics are often able to send you home with free medication to treat your illness/condition. Check your local free clinic for their protocol. Some require that you call in the morning to get on a waiting list to be seen starting that evening; others are open certain hours and take as many patients as they can during that time. In addition, in the last couple of years, many local churches have begun to offer free clinics where you can be seen for one-time medical issues (colds, flu, ear infections, step throat) for no cost. Again, a donation is always appreciated but not required. These clinics are often listed in the paper, and you can also locate them by searching church free clinics in your area.
- If you require surgery or need to be seen in the emergency room, be sure to take advantage of the charity care application that all hospitals have. This allows the hospital (or a company on their behalf) to search out many different resources to assist you in reducing your bill. These assistance sources are not limited just to Medicaid or Medicare, so don't pass up the opportunity to apply just because you think you make too much money. Also, many rural and not-for-profit hospitals have what are called "uncompensated care" programs for the uninsured. Usually it requires just a simple application that you submit to the hospital. Based on your income, they issue you a certificate letter that tells you the percentage that you're responsible for, and they write off the rest. You can often even make payment arrangements on the balance that remains, making getting medical treatment even more accessible and affordable.
- One of the other benefits of these programs -- especially through your local hospital -- is that the discount is often good for an extended period of time -- three, six or twelve months -- as long as you see a provider within their system. This is especially nice if you are in need of long-term disease/condition management and are without health insurance. Once you are on the uncompensated care list, some even send out information about other low-cost care that they are providing.
- Many drug stores also now have in-store medical clinics staffed by nurse practitioners, and are a great resource for the uninsured for many conditions. While these clinics are equipped to treat basic health concerns, many are even expanding their services to include preventative services, sports physicals, et cetera. Their costs are low, they are open evenings and weekends, and there is very little wait time to see a provider.
- No one wants to be a medical guinea pig, but for the uninsured, clinical trials offered through local teaching hospitals can be a great way to save significant amounts of money on medical conditions. If you live near one of these universities, be sure to check out the "Clinical Trials" section of their website and see if you qualify for any of their programs. Check back often, as they change frequently. The application process is often simple, and the care that you receive is comparable to private-practice care. Our local university, last year, did a clinical trial on dental implants, where you could receive up to three dental implants at no cost, as long as you followed the program schedule and consented to follow-up for six months after placement. That's a savings of up to $10,000 or more so don't hesitate to investigate the options available in your area.
There are many other resources out there, and they vary by community. Often, spending a short amount of time researching the programs available in your area can save you hundreds, even thousands, of dollars and still allow you to get the medical care you need.