Modern medicine can treat almost every affliction, from a broken bone to COVID-19 to major depression. But those treatments can be exorbitantly expensive.
If you’re one of the 8 percent of Americans with no health insurance or if you’re worried that you don’t have the money to pay for the care you need, you may feel locked out of the healthcare system.
It can be confusing, scary, and stressful: Two-thirds of Americans worry about affording their medical bills.
If you don’t have insurance, can you get the care you need when you need it? Yes.
While it’s challenging to navigate the medical world without health insurance, it’s not impossible to get affordable care for yourself and your family, even if you don’t have money to afford a private plan.
In this article, I’ll help you understand your care options if you don’t have insurance and are worried about money. I’ll talk about how much you can expect to pay for a healthcare visit if you don’t have insurance.
I’ll provide advice on what to do if you have a medical emergency, and tell you if providers can refuse you treatment.
Finally, I’ll provide some tips for making healthcare more affordable when you don’t have insurance.
What are Your Options?
The type of healthcare provider you choose to see depends on what you need—for instance, if you are having heart attack symptoms, you will choose different care than when you are struggling with seasonal allergies.
Costs will vary based on your situation and needs, and keep in mind that not all providers charge similar rates—which is why it’s worth doing your research before showing up at your local urgent care or provider’s office.
If you haven’t looked into Medicaid as a potential health insurance option, do this before you go seek treatment without insurance.
The 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) expanded access to Medicaid for low-income Americans, though the eligibility differs depending on your state.
Your state government website is a good starting place to determine which low-cost insurance options might be available where you live. Healthcare.gov also offers a price-comparison tool to shop around for health insurance plans.
If you’ve done all this and still don’t have health insurance, here’s what to know about your options for getting care.
Walk-in clinics are small, private facilities that offer care for routine, everyday issues, and they’re everywhere: Your local pharmacy, superstore, or even a kiosk at the mall.
These clinics are ideal for flu shots, minor wound care, vaccinations, and treatment for allergies or mild seasonal viruses.
Walk-in clinics can be a sensible choice if you want to avoid the cost and wait time associated with many primary care providers or an ER.
However, walk-in clinics are not necessarily low cost. It’s easy to rack up unexpected charges, especially if you need any testing or lab work during your visit.
Shop around and compare rates before walking into the nearest clinic. These types of clinics are also not always staffed by physicians and are not appropriate for more complicated medical needs and conditions.
Urgent care centers are similar to walk-in clinics: They’re widespread across urban and rural areas and available to patients on short notice.
The main difference is that urgent care centers are more advanced healthcare facilities that can often accommodate more serious injuries like fractures, sprains, and burns, as well as minor illnesses.
If your medical issue is serious or complex but not life-threatening, urgent care could be the ideal choice for you.
An urgent care visit is significantly more affordable than going to the emergency room. The average urgent care visit costs around $100 to $150 (though it may be slightly higher for those who are uninsured), compared to $1,300 for the average emergency room visit.
If your condition is not an emergency, you can call ahead to the urgent care center to ask about uninsured rates for the condition you’re hoping to have treated.
Some urgent cares may offer payment plans or sliding-scale payments as well.
If you’re uninsured, community clinics should be the first providers you look into.
Many states and counties across the U.S. have free clinics or community health centers that provide low-cost medical services to people without insurance or the means to pay.
A quick search for “low-cost health centers near me” or searching on www.freeclinics.com can get you started.
Once you find a clinic that might be a good fit, call in advance to see if they require appointments and how much you’ll be expected to pay, if anything.
Primary Care Provider
Primary care facilities are not great for last-minute emergencies, because you need an appointment.
But for other issues that can wait, calling for the appointment makes it easier to ask about costs before you commit to the appointment.
If you don’t already have a primary care provider, call around in your area to inquire about pricing and low-cost payment options for patients. You can also get primary care treatment with K health for $12 a month, which is cheaper than a co-pay.
If you have a provider you know and trust, ask their office whether they can do a sliding scale model for patients who are uninsured.
The Emergency Room
Any time you are having a life-threatening medical emergency, you should always go into the ER for care.
Emergency rooms are equipped with everything needed to solve the most complicated and dangerous accidents or illnesses, or to admit you into a hospital if you require further care.
The biggest downside: Emergency rooms are notoriously expensive.
If your situation doesn’t require immediate attention, consider an urgent care or a community clinic as a better option.
How Much is a Medical Visit Without Insurance?
The average visit to a healthcare professional in the U.S. in 2016 cost $265.
This average, though, depends on the type of provider you’re visiting, and the type of appointment.
For example, an average visit to a primary care provider cost $186, while a visit to a cardiologist was $335.
People with insurance usually have something called a copay, meaning the amount you’ll owe out-of-pocket before your insurance picks up the remainder of the tab.
The average copay rates range from $25 to $50 for most plans and services. Even for minor issues, it’s a huge help to have insurance in some form.
What If You Have a Medical Emergency?
In the case of a medical emergency, call 911 and/or go to the emergency room.
Your life and health are the most important priorities. You can always negotiate medical bills down after the fact, though the process differs from state to state.
In New York, for instance, you can file a dispute for medical bills you deem excessive. For people who are a certain amount below the poverty level, there isn’t a fee associated with this process.
In the middle of a crisis, you shouldn’t have to fret about what your healthcare costs will be. (We know this is easier said than done.)
Try to focus on the here and now, and once the immediate situation is resolved, see what you can do to get financial assistance.
Can Providers Refuse Treatment?
It is illegal and unethical for medical institutions to refuse care to any patient in an emergency.
The Patient Advocate Foundation lays out the following situations that qualify as an emergency: a life-threatening incident, an incident where bodily function is seriously impaired, or any instance of a pregnant person in labor.
Non-emergency situations are not as clear cut. In general, public institutions are more accommodating of low-income or uninsured patients than private institutions.
It’s always worth asking whether a facility accepts uninsured patients—often you can look it up online. When you do your research on pricing, do a quick check to see what the institution’s policy is on caring for the uninsured.
Tips for Saving Money When Uninsured
- Shop around before showing up: Call your local medical offices and health clinics to ask about health plans and pricing. If you have an idea of the services you need, they should be able to give you a cost estimate.
- Research your state’s eligibility rules for Medicaid: Check your state government website to find out who qualifies for Medicaid where you live. If this is an option for you, it’s your best bet for getting low-cost health insurance coverage.
- Go to community health clinics: There are many places that specialize in caring for low-income or uninsured patients, and many are equipped with the technology and expertise to handle complex conditions. Search for “low cost health clinics” or “community health centers” in your city to get started or search www.freeclinics.com.
- Choose urgent care centers over the ER for non-life threatening situations: In an emergency, you should always go to the ER. But if you’re dealing with something less pressing—like a sprain, fever, headache, nausea, STI symptoms, or a bladder infection—urgent care is a much cheaper alternative that can still see patients on a same-day basis.
- Be upfront with your provider: Explain your financial situation to your provider and the administrative staff at the clinic. There is no shame in wanting to know what things cost. And you should also feel empowered to ask questions before you agree to further testing, screening, or blood work.
- Ask about payment plans: Your provider’s office, urgent care center, or emergency room might offer installment plans or other financial assistance so you can pay off your bills over a period of time. This can ease the short-term financial burden, but just beware of any potential accumulating interest.
- Remember that medical bills are negotiable: You do have options when it comes to how much you pay, even after the fact. If you receive a medical bill that is higher than expected, call the hospital’s billing department and explain your situation. If they can’t do anything to help, you can try applying for debt forgiveness from a nonprofit that helps with medical bills.
- Try virtual care: Online providers can provide many of the same services as in-person providers, but at a fraction of the cost. At K Health, we can diagnose and treat conditions like allergies, UTIs, cold and flu symptoms, anxiety and depression… and almost anything you might see a primary care provider for. We offer the same low rate to every single patient, regardless of insurance status.
How K Health Can Help
Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?
Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a healthcare professional in minutes.
K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2019. (2019) https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2020/demo/p60-271.html
Expenses for Office-Based Physician Visits by Specialty and Insurance Type, 2016. (2016) https://meps.ahrq.gov/data_files/publications/st517/stat517.shtml
Medicaid Eligibility. (n.d.) https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/eligibility/index.html
Emergency Rooms vs. Urgent Care Centers. (n.d.) https://www.debt.org/medical/emergency-room-urgent-care-costs/
Doctor Visit Costs. (n.d.) https://www.debt.org/medical/doctor-visit-costs/
Surprise Medical Bills and Emergency Services. (n.d.) https://www.dfs.ny.gov/consumers/health_insurance/surprise_medical_bills
Uninsured and Facing an Emergency? Know Your Rights! (n.d.) https://www.patientadvocate.org/explore-our-resources/preventing-medical-debt/uninsured-and-facing-an-emergency-know-your-rights/
Medical Debt and Collections. (n.d.) https://www.debt.org/medical/collections/