Caring Currents

Don't Have Health Insurance? Here's How to Get Health Care Anyway

Last updated: Jun 19, 2009

Clinic Sign in Seattle
Image by hawleyjr used under the creative commons attribution share alike license.

For the almost 40 percent of us who don't have health insurance, going to the doctor has become a luxury; something we do when we can "afford it." But putting off basic health care needs is a really dangerous game; most of the major health conditions, like heart disease and cancer, are much easier to treat in the early stages. So please, if you or someone you're caring for doesn't have health insurance, don't just forego health care. Take care of your health needs through alternative channels. Here's how.

1. Take advantage of free and low-cost screenings. Nowadays these are often offered by chain pharmacies such as CVS and Wal-Mart, as well as local drug stores. Look for the signs in front of the pharmacist's desk announcing future dates.

2. Find local subsidized clinics. Look in the government listing of your local phone book; many areas have city- or county-run clinics for low-income residents that offer a full range of health care services on a sliding scale, depending on your income. Also, the government's Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) offers a directory of clinics in what are known as "medically underserved areas/populations."

3. Women, make sure you get free or low-cost mammograms and other screenings, preventive care, and services. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention runs a program called the National Breast And Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, which maintains a list of where to get these tests in your area. Also, Planned Parenthood clinics offer gynecologic exams, obstetric care, and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, in addition to pregnancy prevention services.

4. Get familiar with your local public hospital and use it when necessary. Every region has hospitals operated by state and local governments ("public hospitals") and some nonprofit hospitals that provide a safety net for anyone who needs care, regardless of ability to pay. Find out which hospitals and medical centers provide treatment to the uninsured in your area; it's often the one with "General" in the title, or the one named after your city. (Like "Seattle General" in the TV show Gray's Anatomy.) The emergency room of the public hospital has to accept and treat patients, regardless of ability to pay, and if you have a serious condition that requires care, the hospital is mandated not to turn you away.

5. Check with organizations serving certain conditions. For cancer, the American Cancer Society offers referrals in some communities for free or low-cost cancer screenings; the American Heart Association offers local blood and cholesterol screenings for cardiac care.

6. Get free vision screenings and services through service organizations. In many areas, service clubs such as the Lion's Club offer a list of doctors that will provide eye care if you can't afford it.