How to find a free or low cost health clinic
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has made a big impact on health insurance coverage by extending Medicaid to many low-income individuals and providing options to save for individuals and families looking for health insurance through the Marketplace. Yet, there are still millions of people who are uninsured, many who cite the high cost for their lack of coverage. The uninsured often face unaffordable medical bills when they do seek care—often resorting to emergency room visits. Many uninsured people don’t realize that the emergency room isn’t their only option. So where do you go when you are uninsured or underinsured? There are probably some options in your area you may not have considered yet.
Where to get free or low cost medical care?
If you’re uninsured or underinsured and don’t qualify for coverage through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), you can get low-cost health care at a nearby community health center. These low-cost clinics provide primary and preventive medical care typically on a sliding fee scale so it’s affordable for everyone. You can receive care even if you are uninsured or cannot afford to pay.
Community Health Centers
Community health centers are community-based and patient-directed clinics that serve individuals with limited access to healthcare. These clinics are generally the best option for low-income individuals as they deliver comprehensive, culturally competent, high-quality primary healthcare services.
Health centers also often include access to pharmacy, mental health, substance use disorder, and oral health services in areas where economic, geographic, or cultural barriers limit access to affordable healthcare services. You can search for one of these federally funded community clinics in your area. Many provide free or low-cost treatment, and the cost is typically determined on a sliding fee scale.
In addition to community health center there are other free or low-cost options:
Your Primary Care Doctor
If you are underinsured and have a primary care doctor, consider letting your doctor know upfront you are having a hard time paying the full cost. Some doctor’s offices will take cash. In some cases, you may be able to ask your doctor if they offer discounts for cash payments. They may be also able to help you find programs that help you with part of the costs for care or medications.
Many people assume the best option when they are sick is to go to the emergency room but ERs are expensive. For non-emergencies, find an urgent care facility in your neighborhood. Urgent care is typically the same-day treatment for a non-emergency medical condition. Conditions such as cases of flu, colds and sore throats are generally treated during a visit.
You can walk into most urgent care facilities without an appointment. The costs are generally much lower than an emergency room visit, wait times are better and the staff is more attentive in most cases. Often, urgent care centers have similar equipment as an emergency room, so they can treat more than just the common cold. Each office varies, so call ahead to ensure they can treat you when you arrive—an average urgent care center visit costs between $50 to $150.
Sometimes mislooked, walk-in clinics at your local pharmacy or inside a hospital are an affordable option. They are usually staffed by a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant, and are equipped to treat minor ailments, offer vaccinations, and prescribe and dispense some medications. For those with coverage, they take most private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid. Costs per visit range between $80 – $90, with additional charges for lab tests.
Under the ACA, younger individuals are able to stay on their parent’s plan until they are 26. Although, for those individuals whose parents don’t have insurance, a great option for college students is an on-campus clinic. These clinics will range based on the campus but are typically similar to a walk-in clinic. Students can access a range of services like physicals, birth control, STI testing & treatment, management of chronic illnesses, and immunizations at either low costs or free of charge.
Planned Parenthood is a great option for a range of low-cost medical services beyond reproductive care. At Planned Parenthood, treatment is available to everyone, regardless of gender and whether you have insurance or not. Planned Parenthood offers most of its services on a sliding scale—the cost is based on your last few weeks of income to create a pay scale that it believes is fair for your situation. The scale varies by location, but this cost calculator can give you a good idea of your range.
How do I find the nearest healthcare center?
You can find an HRSA-funded health center by visiting: https://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov/. For an urgent care or walk-in clinic you can do a quick search to find a variety of options. Some additional resources are:
How much do these services cost?
Every clinic can vary. Your best option is to call ahead and ask how much a visit will cost. Many healthcare facilities and providers offer payment plans. Check with your provider.
When scheduling an appointment, tell the doctor’s office that you are uninsured and ask if discount rates are available. If discount rates aren’t available, or are too expensive for you, call other facilities in the area, as some provide less expensive care than others. If they do, paying a little over a period of time can help make the care more affordable.
For prescription medication, ask for drug samples or a generic option (it will be lower cost than a brand name drug). You can also use NeedyMeds to find help with the cost of medicine.
Laboratory tests can be necessary and expensive, but you can choose where you get your test. The cost of lab tests differ quite a bit. You can search for the cost of common tests, which will give you an estimate in your area.
We understand the cost of health insurance can be intimidating to many. But if you are uninsured, and do not qualify for Medicare or CHIP, we encourage you to consider an ACA plan. Among people who enrolled with HealthSherpa, 8 out of 10 people qualify for savings, with a majority of them paying less than $100 per month. Plus, 25% of people who’ve enrolled with us have found a plan for $10 or less per month. Shop & compare plans now!