If you’re uninsured and in need of medical help, charity care could be a lifesaver. But there are some things you should know about it.
It could be hard to find
There are charity programs all over the country, but many don’t advertise their services. Word of mouth alone gives them more traffic than they can handle. If you’re having trouble finding a program, your local hospital is probably the best place to start. Ask to speak with a patient advocate or a social worker. They can usually put you in touch with the right people. You might also try looking for help online.
Every program is different
The services offered at one place may not be available at another. A specific hospital or clinic may not be able to provide the care you need. If that’s the case, keep looking. But don’t walk out without asking about other programs in the area.
Getting in could be difficult
Many charity programs serve only the very poor. At the very least, they usually require that you be uninsured and earn less than a specified amount. You may also be turned aside if you qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. Make sure you review the requirements early on. If you foresee a problem, ask if an exception is possible. Someone may be willing to work with you.
Charity care is not always free
Many hospitals and clinics have limited budgets. They sometimes operate on grants or federal funding. Patients are often responsible for picking up part of the tab. You too may be asked to pay a fee. If so, you can usually work out a payment plan. Whatever you pay though, it will only be a fraction of the actual cost.
There might be a waiting list
As the numbers of uninsured continue to rise, so does the demand for charity care. Depending on the circumstances, you may have to wait a bit. Some hospitals and clinics operate on a first-come-first-served basis. Others prioritize by need. If you feel your situation is urgent, ask if your care can be expedited or look around for someone who can see you sooner.
Your care might be limited
Many programs are unable to offer highly specialized surgeries or treatments. This is usually because of cost, but it might be related to lack of equipment or staffing. It all depends on the clinic and hospital. It’s a good idea to ask specifics up front. That way you’ll know whether the program is right for you.
The emergency room is not for charity care
Federal law requires emergency rooms to treat patients regardless of their ability to pay. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be billed later on. In a real emergency, you should always go to the ER. You can work out a payment plan or appeal the bill later on. Otherwise, schedule your care through your charity program. That’s what it’s there for.