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How to see a doctor when you don’t have health insurance

Cropped SingleCare logo By | April 30, 2020
Medically reviewed by Scott Dershowitz, LMSW, CMC

If you’re sick, you make an appointment to see a doctor, right? Well, if you’re in the United States and are one of the many people who are either uninsured or underinsured, getting medical care isn’t quite so simple. The healthcare system can be wildly expensive for those without insurance—or for those whose insurance doesn’t cover enough. So, how do you see a doctor without health insurance? Luckily, there are a few options available. However, they vary by where you live, what kind of treatment is required, and other factors specific to your circumstances.

How to see a doctor without insurance

First and foremost, people should not avoid going to the doctor strictly because of cost. It could cost your health and your wallet more down the line if you postpone getting the care you need. Even if you don’t have health insurance, you can still see a doctor and receive medical treatment—preventive care, acute care, urgent care, or emergency care. The difficult part is to find services that are affordable. The best places to start are community health clinics, walk-in clinics, and direct care providers.

Community health clinics

Community health clinics are likely available in your area. These can be free or at a low cost to you. These clinics provide some of the most necessary care for people, such as preventive screenings and vaccinations, without the hefty price tag of a direct primary care provider or insurance requirements. Many of these allow people to pay on a “sliding scale” based on their income, or offer free services. Try searching your area through the directory on freeclinics.com.

Walk-in clinics

Walk-in clinics are also available for more routine issues, and they can take cash payments if you do not have insurance. You can see a doctor at a walk-in clinic for minor issues and be billed for the visit. However, not all of these are as affordable as others, so make sure to ask whether costs are upfront. Some walk-in clinics offer care at low or reduced rates, while others may be able to help you apply for free or low-cost health insurance, like Medicaid.                                                                                          

Direct care providers

Even if you don’t have health insurance, it’s still possible to see a healthcare provider; however, it may come at a fee. There are clinics that cater to the uninsured, known as cash-only clinics, concierge clinics, or direct care providers. You may want to shop around to find a doctor that you like that also fits within your budget. 

Hospital emergency room

If you have an immediate medical emergency, you should go to the hospital emergency room or call 911. Emergency medical providers like hospitals generally can’t refuse care in a medical emergency because you don’t have health insurance. Let the staff know that you are uninsured, as you may be able to arrange repayment terms over time with their billing department, or get assistance applying for emergency Medicaid or other insurance. However, emergency care is the most expensive type of care. Only use it if it’s a true emergency to avoid incurring expensive bills. In non-emergency situations, urgent care is typically a more affordable option.

Urgent care centers

Urgent care centers are available for immediate emergencies and other time-sensitive medical needs, and often are able to take direct payment from the patient. This may wind up being a cheaper alternative to a hospital visit, provided the clinic is able to address your medical needs. These centers are like a walk-in clinic for more serious concerns, such as broken bones, sprains, and wounds requiring stitches. 

How much does it cost to see a doctor without insurance?

Unfortunately, if you’re uninsured, getting medical care can be quite costly. Just how costly is difficult to determine, as it varies by the medical issue you’re having, type of provider you’re seeing, and where you live. While debt.org lists a doctor’s visit costs somewhere between $70 and $250, but this number rises if you need additional testing or prescriptions. It can be astronomical should you need to visit the emergency room. The costs for various accidents and illnesses can add up quickly when you factor in billable items like blood tests, X-rays, and ambulance rides. Many people end up being surprised by large bills after a medical event. 

The average cost for diagnostic tests can also vary by quite a bit depending on your region and where you went. According to the Healthcare Bluebook, a database that compiles rates, a blood count lab test can range anywhere between $15 and $100, a chest X-ray can range between $40 and $250, and a fetal ultrasound can set you back between $89 and $480. As you can see, it can be a real challenge to estimate just how much medical care might cost should you end up needing it.

Just how much you will pay can also depend on where you are receiving care. Some clinics can give discounts, or allow you to pay on a sliding scale that is based on your income. Community clinics may end up cheaper than going to a direct care provider, and urgent care clinics can be less expensive than a trip to the ER. Ultimately, what you will be paying varies a lot by your specific health problem and where you go for treatment. Prior to visiting a clinic, you can “shop around” to compare prices or find out if you can get the treatment you need somewhere cheaper. 

It’s important to call out that there are many people who are uninsured that don’t have to be. You can visit healthcare.gov or contact your local department of social services to find out whether you qualify for free or low-cost health insurance.

How to save money when you don’t have health insurance

When getting medical care without insurance, there are steps you can take to minimize cost:

  1. Mention you are uninsured. This way you can find out if there are any discounts that you may be eligible for. 
  2. Shop around for care that fits your budget. Rates vary by location. Look for a free, or sliding scale clinic. 
  3. Ask for a payment plan. Some healthcare providers will let you pay overtime to reduce upfront costs. 
  4. Double-check your bills. Errors are common. Make sure you’re being charged the right amount. You can even negotiate bills after you receive them, just call and ask.
  5. Use prescription savings cards, like SingleCare to reduce the cost of any prescriptions you need.
  6. Ask for drug samples or a generic version. This can greatly reduce the out-of-pocket price for medication.
  7. Check to see if you’re eligible for Medicaid. It’s based on income, household size, and where you live, among other factors.

RELATED: How can I save on my medication?

Everything feels harder when you’re sick. Take these steps now, before you need healthcare, to ensure you are in a better place financially later on. Looking for discounts, coupons, payment plans, and comparing prices can be immensely helpful for your wallet while trying to navigate the healthcare system.