Despite efforts such as the Affordable Care Act, the cost of health insurance remains prohibitively high for many people in the United States. Free or low-cost care may be available in certain locations, and a person can take some steps to reduce costs further.
In 2018, 27.5 million people in the U.S. had no health insurance. This figure represented 8.5% of the population.
As a result, many people are faced with unaffordable medical bills and debt. However, depending on a person’s location, they may be able to access some free or reduced-cost services.
Below, we explore options and strategies for receiving this care.
Medicaid is a form of public health insurance. A person may be eligible for it if they are a U.S. citizen and have a household income below a certain level.
The coverage that this insurance provides varies state by state. A person can check on their eligibility and what services are covered on Medicaid’s website.
Some states provide “charity care,” medical care that is free or has reduced rates. A person may need to apply for this, but some states screen for it automatically. Eligibility depends on a person’s income and assets.
To learn about the options, a person can contact their state’s insurance department or reach out to the social worker or financial assistance department at a local hospital.
These are nonprofit health centers. If a person has no insurance, the staff at these clinics may provide some care for free.
Or, they may charge a fee on a sliding scale, taking into account a person’s financial situation.
Community health centers may not be able to offer care for some health issues. Still, depending on the clinic, they may provide the following services:
- basic medical care
- prenatal and perinatal care
- family planning services
- other forms of preventive care
- ongoing care for chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and asthma
- dental care
- behavioral health services, such as care for alcohol use disorder or eating disorders
- radiology services
At a community health center, a person may also be able to access free or low-cost prescriptions.
A person does not need to make an appointment at a walk-in clinic or urgent care center, and some offer free or reduced-cost care for people without health insurance.
It can be a good idea to contact local clinics and care centers ahead of time and ask about fees and options for people without insurance.
Emergency room staff cannot deny care or treatment to people without insurance, but they do charge for their services.
The fees of emergency rooms are higher than those of urgent care centers. It may be a good idea to research and consider what situations might warrant a visit to each place.
For injuries or illnesses that are serious but not life threatening, a person might visit an urgent care center.
A person should likely receive care in an emergency room if they experience:
- severe chest pain
- severe abdominal pain
- shortness of breath
- a high fever
- vaginal bleeding during pregnancy
- persistent vomiting
- symptoms of poisoning, such as a change in pupil size and breathing
- a severe head injury
- a severe eye injury
The costs vary significantly depending on the type of doctor, the type of treatment, the medical issue, and even the location of the clinic.
According to debt.org, the average cost of a single doctor’s visit is roughly $70–250. However, this can rise sharply if there is a need for additional tests or prescriptions.
If a person requires medical care and does not have insurance, the following tips may help:
Mention insurance status beforehand
Doctors, clinics, and hospitals may offer reduced fees to people who do not have insurance. This is more likely to happen if the person discloses this information before their appointment.
Fees vary by location. Before a person gets sick, it may be a good idea to contact local hospitals and healthcare centers and ask about their average fees for an appointment.
This can also be a good way to locate clinics that offer free or sliding-scale services.
Ask for generic medication
Generic medication is usually less expensive than branded medication.
As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explain, “Generic medicines use the same active ingredients as brand-name medicines and work the same way, so they have the same risks and benefits.”
Ask for a payment plan
Hospitals and other healthcare centers may offer affordable payment plans to people facing large medical bills.
Pay in advance, if possible
Some hospitals and doctors offer reduced rates for people who can pay in advance.
This may be feasible if the medical issue is planned, such as an elective surgery or a pregnancy.
It can be difficult to predict how much medical care a person will need. In some cases, having insurance may be more affordable than not having it.
To check whether someone qualifies for government-sponsored insurance under the Affordable Care Act, a person can search here.
While health insurance remains inaccessible for many people in the U.S., some medical care is often available for free or at a reduced rate.
A person may find affordable care in a walk-in clinic or urgent care center. It can also help to ask for generic medication and mention the insurance status before the appointment.
Overall, doing research is key, as some local clinics and hospitals charge more than others.
A person might also qualify for government-sponsored insurance via Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act.