According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, almost 50 million Americans are without health insurance. Many of the uninsured use emergency rooms as a last resort for their health needs, since the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) requires that hospitals provide emergency healthcare treatment to whoever needs it. But neglecting routine care is not only unhealthy for your body, it’s unhealthy for your wallet, as a single emergency room visit can cost thousands of dollars.
Even if you’re uninsured, there are ways to get affordable medical care. In fact, there are a multitude of resources that can help you find the care you need.
Healthcare Options for the Uninsured
1. Be Honest About Your Ability to Pay
Providers are more understanding than most people would have you believe. When discussing payment with a provider, being honest about your financial situation and your ability to pay can lower, or even eliminate, your fees. Some providers have sliding scales, while others offer discounts if you pay an upfront amount.
If you have to go to an emergency room, go immediately to the hospital’s billing office when you’re released. If you don’t have a job or cannot pay, your entire bill may be waived.
2. Check out Charitable Clinics and Hill-Burton Free Hospital Care
The National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics (NAFC) is a nonprofit organization that provides what it calls “safety-net healthcare” to the uninsured, the under-insured, and those who have no access to primary, specialty, or prescription healthcare.
Doctors, dentists, nurses, therapists, pharmacists, and nurse practitioners, aided by volunteers, provide a multitude of services at 12,000 locations nationwide. Hill-Burton hospitals also provide low-cost care to the uninsured; they are required to give a certain amount of free or reduced cost healthcare in exchange for federal funds.
3. Explore COBRA
If your spouse has group insurance, find out if his or her insurance will cover you. If you or your spouse have recently been laid off or fired, find out if you are still covered by the provisions of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA). Under COBRA, insurers must offer some employees health insurance coverage after leaving employment. However, COBRA isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be – some individual plans are cheaper.
4. Seek Government Assistance
If COBRA doesn’t cover you, apply for Medicaid. If denied Medicaid, apply for your county’s medical assistance programs, if available. County medical assistance programs typically help the uninsured or under-insured by providing care on a sliding scale or at no cost.
5. Eliminate the Middleman with DPCP Providers
Many of the uninsured find direct primary care providers (DPCP) to be a low-cost source for healthcare. DPCPs charge their patients a low monthly fee in exchange for unlimited office visits with primary care physicians.
What distinguishes DPCPs from insurance companies is the fact that they don’t discriminate against people with preexisting conditions. Most DPCPs don’t pay for medications or lab tests, but many offer discounts.
6. Reduce Medication Costs
For some, healthcare costs are heavy due to the price of medication. When you can, opt for generic instead of brand-name drugs. Visit NeedyMeds.org, a non-profit site, to find programs that can help you pay for your medication. NeedyMeds also has a directory of over 10,000 clinics that are either free, low-cost, or operate on a sliding scale. MyRxCoupons.com is also a gem for those looking to save on medication.
7. Visit Retail Clinics, Urgent Cares & Community Centers
Many of the uninsured don’t realize that the emergency room is not their only option. You can find nearby retail clinics, urgent cares, and community centers for non-emergency situations. (iTriage has a useful mobile app to locate the ones nearest you.)
Retail clinics (found in many Walgreens, CVS, and some Walmart locations) are usually staffed by nurses or physician assistants who can perform strep throat tests, administer immunizations, and conduct sports, school, and camp physicals.
At urgent cares (open evenings, weekends, and holidays), physicians can treat sprains, fractures, colds, and cuts, among other ailments. Both of these alternatives are much cheaper than emergency rooms, and your wait will probably be shorter.
8. Take Advantage of Free or Low-Cost Screenings
To effectively (and cost-effectively) treat diseases and chronic conditions, early diagnosis is extremely important. Catching a disease or condition early on can prevent more serious and more expensive problems from occurring later down the road.
Many providers, including hospitals, offer a variety of free screenings throughout the year, while organizations like Planned Parenthood offer low-cost screenings for sexually transmitted infections. Even if you are the picture of health, take advantage of these screenings to ensure you catch problems as early as possible.
9. Participate in a Clinical Trial
If you have exhausted standard care options, look into participating in a clinical trial. Volunteers participate in medical research studies to test new medications, therapies, methods of diagnosis, and treatment of diseases.
To find out more about clinical trials in which you might be qualified to participate, call the National Cancer Institute at 1-888-624-1937 or the National Institute of Health at 1-800-411-1222.
10. Research Risk Pool Coverage or Preexisting Condition Insurance Plans
Many insurance companies won’t accept those with preexisting conditions, which is unfortunate, as those people are arguably the ones who need insurance the most. To avoid medical debt and bankruptcy, research whether your state has risk pool coverage (RPC). Not all states offer RPC, but all states offer preexisting condition insurance plans (PCIPs). Both state programs serve people who have preexisting health conditions and who may find it difficult to find affordable healthcare coverage.
Going without health insurance isn’t easy, but you can still access affordable medical care. There are a multitude of sites like CoverageForAll.org, an excellent resource for those who want to know what their private and public insurance options are via a short eligibility quiz. The Patient Advocate Foundation is also an invaluable resource for those who have difficulty navigating “issues with access to care, medical debt, and job retention related to illness.”
Even if you are the picture of good health, there are a lot of illnesses out there that don’t have any symptoms. It’s important to get routine care to discover problems early on. That way, you won’t have to pay even more later on.
What other tips do you have for receiving affordable, quality medical care?