How to Save Money on Health Care
If you have no insurance or have financial difficulties, you may qualify for one of these programs
- Free clinics. The nation's more than 1,200 free clinics treat 4 million uninsured Americans a year—and that number is growing. "Free clinics across the country have seen a 40 to 50 percent increased need since this time last year," says Nicole Lamoureux, executive director of the National Association of Free Clinics, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. The clinics are privately funded and each has its own acceptance criteria, so call your local clinic—there's one in almost every state—to find out if you're eligible for service. As a general rule, most require patients to be uninsured and meet an income test. The clinics are staffed with volunteer doctors and nurses who provide a range of medical services, including diabetes care, disease prevention, mental health help, overall wellness care, and dental services.
- Community health centers. Similar to free clinics, community health centers provide general medical care, preventive services, patient education, pregnancy and mental health care, and dental services. The difference? Community health centers are funded by federal grants. And unlike free clinics, the health centers accept insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children's Health Insurance Program, charging for services on a sliding scale if your income is 200 percent of the federal poverty level or below. "Whatever your ability to pay, we'll work with you," says Donald L. Weaver, MD, the deputy associate administrator for primary health care at the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees community health centers. There are community health centers in every state and more than 7,500 in all.
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- Charity care. Most hospitals provide free or discounted care to uninsured or underinsured patients who meet certain eligibility requirements. While charity assistance policies vary from one hospital to the next, most offer free or discounted care on a sliding scale based on income and allow patients to apply for care either before or after treatment. If possible, compare area hospitals' charity programs to find out which will provide you with the steepest discount. A couple of hundred hospitals that received government loans through a now-discontinued program are still required to offer free or low-cost care. For more information on these hospitals, known as Hill-Burton facilities. (Once you find a Hill-Burton hospital in your area, contact the business office for eligibility requirements and details on applying for free or discounted care.) Even if you have insurance coverage, some planning can save you money in an emergency. "The better prepared you are for knowing what the landscape is, the better decisions you're going to make down the road," says Janet Walton, deputy program director at Rxassist, a nonprofit Web site that provides information on health care discounts.
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- Medication assistance. Most pharmaceutical companies have assistance programs that provide needy patients with insulin and pens, meters, and oral medications. Though each company has its own eligibility requirements, most specify income limits for singles, couples, and families. The application process varies among companies, although nearly all require you and your doctor to fill out a form and submit it to the company for approval. The process can be tedious—you may have to submit proof of income and will most likely have to renew your application each year, says Walton—but if you qualify, you can save a hefty chunk of change. Keep in mind that assistance is for brand-name meds only, not generics. You can find a listing of assistance programs searchable by drug name or pharmaceutical company here, as well as tips on applying for aid and sample application and appeals letters. Needy Meds and the Partnership for Prescription Assistance also provide info about these programs.
- State support. While not all states offer aid, many have programs that provide help to people over 65, the uninsured, and those with disabilities. For example, the Oklahoma Cares program provides breast and cervical cancer treatment for low-income women with abnormal screening results and no health insurance. Massachusetts's MassMedLine program allows all state residents to call a toll-free number for pharmacist-provided information about the medications they're taking, and will help patients apply for medication assistance programs. You can find a list of state assistance programs here, or you can ask your state health or insurance department for guidance.