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What Are Some Health Care Options for the Uninsured?

Some Healthcare Providers Will Take Care of You for Free or for a Low Fee

By Maureen Salamon

Updated January 21, 2009

(LifeWire) - Question: I am uninsured. What are my options for obtaining health care?

Answer: Your uninsured status places you among the 45 million Americans under age 65 without health insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Unfortunately, those without health insurance are much more likely to go without preventive care or medical attention for serious health conditions. The foundation, which tracks healthcare trends, estimated that 20,000 uninsured adults die prematurely each year because timely treatment is not available.

Although being uninsured limits your ability to obtain health care, you have several options for seeking medical advice to prevent problems or seek a cure.

Your Health Care Choices If You're Uninsured

Free clinics: Hundreds of communities across the United States have free clinics, which provide health care to local low-income residents and those in need. These clinics can charge reduced rates or provide free care for patients with non-emergency conditions. Their fees depend on a patient's income. (During an actual emergency, you should go straight to a hospital.)

Many staff members at free clinics are volunteers, including doctors, nurses, dentists and mental health specialists. Some clinics provide access to prescription medications through partnerships with cooperating businesses. Government support for free clinics is generally sparse, and money is often raised locally through donations.

The Department of Health and Human Services maintains an online list of free clinics may help you find one in your area.

Charity care: Also called uncompensated health care, charity care is medical attention provided free or at a reduced cost. You must apply for this care, and it can only be sought at participating hospitals and healthcare facilities. Recipients usually are uninsured, but they don't benefit from government programs such as Medicaid. Many charity care recipients don't have any source of income.

Some states have far more health professionals participating in charity care than others; financial pressures, however, caused the percentage of doctors nationwide who offer it to decrease to 68% by 2005 from 76% eight years earlier, according to the Center for Studying Health System Change, a healthcare policy research group.

To apply for charity care, people usually are required to provide financial information, including income and assets. Family size and income relative to federal poverty guidelines will be assessed, and often a social worker will conduct an interview to review this information.

Hospitals may offer applications and information about charity care in several locations throughout the facility, including the emergency room, financial services office and registration area.

Emergency rooms: A federal law passed in 1986, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, requires emergency rooms across the US to treat everyone who walks in the door, regardless of their ability to pay. That means you can visit the ER for free health care -- but that doesn't mean you should.

Preventive and routine health care should still be handled at free clinics or as charity care with participating doctors; the ER should be the destination only during a true emergency -- for injuries or illnesses are potentially life-threatening.

Some people rely too much on the emergency room for non-urgent complaints, such as ear infections, colds and flu, minor cuts, sprains and dental problems, according to the Center for Studying Health System Change.

And with nearly 120 million ER visits in 2007 -- more than 10% of which were for non-urgent conditions -- the cost of "free" care in an emergency room is far from free. The center says patients with non-urgent needs not only clog up the system, contributing to longer waits for ER care, but also contribute to higher overall healthcare costs because the same care would be less expensive to provide elsewhere.


LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Maureen Salamon is a New Jersey-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in a variety of online and print publications.
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