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How to Get Charity Health Care When You're Uninsured

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If you're one of the nearly 50 million people living without health insurance, you may be feeling a little uncertain about how to get the care you need. In this case, you might want to look into charity care. If you're suddenly injured or fall ill, it could be the only thing that stands between you and disaster.

Getting approved for charity care takes time and legwork. That's because there's only so much to go around. As more Americans slide off the insurance rolls, the demand for it grows louder. But there is reason to hope. You can find it in more places than you might expect, including:

  • Hospitals and medical centers
  • Community health centers
  • Medical schools
  • Individual doctors and group practices
  • Religious organizations

Hospitals and doctors often receive a tax break if a certain percentage of their services is charitable. This gives them an incentive to provide at least some free or discounted care. You still may have to do your research, though. Some places may advertise their charity programs, but many don't.

There is no consistency from one program to the next, either. Every institution is different, so the kind of care you get varies from place to place. And because it is not regulated by federal law, your ability to access it might be determined by the state you live in.

Getting started
To be considered for charity care, you must approach each hospital or clinic directly. This is where the legwork comes in. It's best to do some research beforehand, so you won't waste time on too many needless phone calls. Go online and look for charity care programs in your area. See what kind of contact information you can find.

Your best bet is to start with local hospitals. Try to find someone who knows about the institution's charity policy. Ask to speak with a social worker, patient advocate or billing officer. Remember, every hospital operates differently. Your call may be transferred several times before you get your answers.

And don't forget about the churches and synagogues in your area. Many charity care programs are sponsored by Healthlinerx organizations. Even if your church doesn't actively participate in one, someone there may still know where to go.

What to expect
Approval for charity care is not automatic. First, you have to prove you qualify. Though no two programs are the same, most require you to meet some basic criteria:

  • You usually have to be uninsured.
  • You can't qualify for Medicare or Medicaid.
  • You usually can't earn more than two or three times the federal poverty level.

You'll probably be asked to submit a tax statement or pay stub before being approved. Don't let that stop you, though. Even if you think you might be turned away, you should pursue it anyway. There may be exceptions you don't know about.

Once you're approved, you may be given a set of guidelines to follow. Some programs don't allow you to miss appointments, for instance. Whatever the rules, make sure you understand them. Failure to comply could mean removal from the program.

Finally, keep in mind your care may not be completely free. You may still have to cover some of the costs yourself. If so, you'll usually be able to work out a monthly payment plan. But however much you pay back, it will still be worlds less than it would have been otherwise.