(Note: I'm not a doctor and nothing in this post should be considered medical advice!)
On February 1, 2012, I became one of the 46 million Americans in this country without health insurance.
When I left my social work job to work fulltime as a freelance writer last August, I planned to keep coverage from my former employer through COBRA.
After a few months of that, I realized that monthly premiums cost almost as much as my rent. Also, the plan had a $2000 deductible, so it wasn't doing me much good anyway.
But actually taking the plunge was terrifying. I have a history of bipolar disorder, diabetes (resolved after weight loss surgery), and high cholesterol. My family medical history includes heart disease and breast cancer. In other words, unless I can slide into a high risk pool, I'm pretty much uninsurable.
But it was either give up the insurance or start living on a cat food diet, and my cats are not big on the concept of sharing.
If you, too, are considering ditching your health plan, the following information may be helpful.
1. Make sure you're in good health before you go.
Before I canceled my plan, I saw all of my doctors and advised them that I would be switching from insurance to private pay. My primary care physician gave me a physical, did blood work, and sent me for a mammogram--all clear.
2. Know your rights when it comes to medical emergencies.
A medical emergency is an illness or injury that poses and immediate threat to your life, limb, or long-term health. If you have a medical emergency or are in active labor and go to the emergency room of a hospital that accepts Medicare or Medicaid, the ER staff has to see you and provide stabilizing treatment whether you have insurance or not.
This doesn't mean that you won't be billed for the care you receive, but you can work that out with patient accounts at a later time. The point is that the hospital cannot refuse to give you care just because you can't pay.
3. Plan for routine medical care.
A urinary tract infection or a bad case of hay fever may be quite unpleasant, but they usually don't qualify as emergencies. Ask around and see if your town or city has a public health clinic that offers sliding scale fees. You might also call around and find out how much it would cost to be seen at one of the clinics frequently available in pharmacies. Still another option is to see if your regular physician will see you and allow you to make payments for the care you receive.
Even if you're in perfectly good health now, it's a good idea to do the research so that you know what steps to take if an illness does come up.
4. Don't forget medications.
If you take regular medications, plan how you will get them once your insurance is no longer in effect. Depending on your income, you may qualify for free or reduced-cost medications from a pharmaceutical assistance program. You can also ask your doctor for free samples. Another idea is to go through your list of medications with your doctor and find the least expensive alternatives. Often older, generic drugs work just as well as new, brand-name drugs.
It's also a good idea to call around town and find the least expensive pharmacy. When I called Wal-Mart, for instance, I found they had several of the prescriptions I needed for only $4 per month.
Finally, if you must have an expensive, brand-name prescription, you can save yourself a lot of money by shopping north or south of the border. Sometimes medical tourism can be a beautiful thing.
I hope everyone reading this has a good, affordable health insurance plan. If you know or suspect you're about to lose your insurance, however, try to prepare as much as possible. It will make the transition much smoother.
If you don't have health insurance, how do you handle medical expenses?