If you’re one of the 50 million Americans without health insurance you may think your only healthcare option is the emergency room. Not true. If you’re going without insurance, or know someone who is, this post is just what the doctor ordered.
Chuck, a good friend of mine, has now been without a â€œrealâ€ job for more than three years. He does odd jobs to stay alive, and because heâ€™s skilled in both carpentry and mechanics, he gets by. But health insurance? Forget about it. So a few months back when he got too sick to function he utilized what he considered his only option: the emergency room. Chuckâ€™s not alone. According to the latest Census data there are now 49.9 million Americans without health insurance. Itâ€™s a safe bet that many skip the doctor and use super-expensive emergency services. But if youâ€™re one of the uninsured like Chuck, hereâ€™s something you need to know: You have other options. In fact, you can go to a doctorâ€™s office and be treated just like everyone else. And when the bill comes, youâ€™ll be asked to pay what you can afford â€“ which includes zero if youâ€™re earning zero.
Letâ€™s take a closer look at options for those without insurance.
Federally qualified health centers
Care Resource, the health care center where I researched this story, is a Federally Qualified Health Center, one of hundreds nationwide. According to the Health Resources and Services Administrationâ€™s website hereâ€™s what they can do:
- Checkups when youâ€™re well
- Treatment when youâ€™re sick
- Complete care when youâ€™re pregnant
- Immunizations and checkups for your children
- Dental care and prescription drugs for your family
- Mental health and substance abuse care if you need it
These places price their services based on your ability to pay. To find one near you go to the HRSA search page and type in your address. And if youâ€™re imagining these places look like some squalid clinic resembling the DMV, think again. While I obviously canâ€™t speak for all, the one I went to for this story looked no better or worse than my doctorâ€™s office. Remember, these arenâ€™t government clinics: Theyâ€™re private clinics that receive part of their funding from the government.
Another option for the low-income uninsured is Medicaid, state-run programs providing health coverage for families. As with Medicare, those who qualify receive all kinds of health services. While programs differ by state, most cover services ranging from eye doctor visits to hospice services.
To learn more about Medicaid, visit the Department of Health and Human Services site. If you donâ€™t qualify for Medicaid, your kids may still qualify for a state-run Childrenâ€™s Health Insurance Program. In some states, this program is combined with Medicaid. The eligibility cutoff varies, but â€œchildren up to age 19 in families with incomes up to $45,000 per year (for a family of four) are likely to be eligible,â€ says the US Department of Health and Human ServicesÂ (HHS).
You might also qualify for insurance through state run high-risk insurance pools designed for people who could normally afford insurance, but have pre-existing conditions ranging from cancer to asthma that led to insurance denials. That practice will be fully banned in 2014 because of the Affordable Care Act. Until then, HealthInsurance.org can tell you more about each stateâ€™s high-risk pool program. If youâ€™ve looked at this option before, look again: HHS made it easier and cheaper to acquire coverage last July.
Those with low incomes can often get prescription drug assistance, including free drugs. There are dozens of private and public programs available. In addition, some states have discount programs. Also keep in mind that some pharmacies and grocery stores, including Walmart, Kroeger, Target, Publix, and others now offer some antibiotics and common medications free or at rates as low as $4 for a monthâ€™s supply.
Free help finding help
There are organizations charging little or nothing to help people find insurance and health care they can afford.
1.Â Patient Advocate Foundation is a national nonprofit that offers advice, case management assistance, a program that helps those who already have insurance,Â certain diseases get lower co-pays, and a database of financial resources sorted by state.
2.Â Healthcare.gov was originally designed to explain the changes made through the health care reform law enacted last year, andÂ is also a great resource for those seeking care. It offers an insurance plan finder, tools for comparing the quality of care across providers, advice on enrolling in free or low-cost programs, and plenty of other information.
3.Â The Access Project helps people enroll in many programs, find a doctor, or get cheaper care. They specialize in helping HIV and hepatitis patients, but offer many other resources for everyone.
1. Catastrophic coverage: If you find that typical insurance is too expensive, do what I did: Get a high-deductible policy. These policies are much less expensive because you pay the first $2,000 â€“ $10,000 of expenses yourself â€“ hence the name â€œcatastrophic coverage.â€ While youâ€™ll be out-of-pocket for things like doctor visits, at least if the worst happens, youâ€™ll be able to avoid going bankrupt. Plus, just being associated with an insurance company will often result in significant discounts.
2. Part-time work: Benefits packages usually come only with full-time employment, but not always. A number of companies, including Starbucks and Loweâ€™s, offer insurance for part-time employees.
Stacy Johnson is a personal finance author, speaker, and television news personality. His Money Talks News series has aired for more than 20 years on dozens of network affiliates nationwide.
Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.