If you're among the estimated 50 million Americans without health insurance, the odds of staying healthy are stacked against you. The uninsured have less access to care, are less likely to receive preventive care and are more likely to be hospitalized for health problems that could have been avoided, according to a 2010 report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. We asked local medical professionals what people who are uninsured can do to preserve their health and avoid a medical crisis. There are no ideal solutions, but there are resources worth checking out.
For common illnesses or injuries
People with a severe cold, the flu or a sore throat, or those with broken bones or cuts that require stitches have several options:
• County public health clinics, community health centers or free clinics (see resource box for locations and contact information) provide care for free or on a sliding scale based on income.
• Private walk-in or urgent care clinics. They generally require payment at the time of service, but many list their prices at the front desk so at least you know what you're getting into. One example is MedExpress, which has several locations in the Tampa Bay area. It has a three-tiered pricing system, starting from $109 to treat conditions such as the flu or stomach viruses, to $149 for conditions that require an X-ray, like a broken bone, to $199 for illnesses that require the administration of intravenous fluids.
For chronic conditions
Public health clinics, community health centers and free clinics also can help people manage diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and other chronic conditions so they don't turn into health crises.
"It's better for people to come in now, instead of waiting until an emergency that could have been avoided," said Trudy Grossman, the nurse practitioner at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic.
Carol Korte of St. Petersburg, who is diabetic, has been going to the St. Petersburg Free Clinic for checkups, tests and medications since her husband lost his job, and his health insurance, several years ago.
"It takes some stress out of a stressful situation," said Korte, 45. "I wouldn't be able to afford the medications."
People with chronic conditions also can be treated at walk-in clinics and by private physicians, though it might be difficult to find a private physician who will take an uninsured patient.
For prescription medications
Patients at public or community health centers or free clinics are sometimes signed up for drug assistance programs for medications they need, said John Martinelli, medical services manager with Pinellas County Public Health Department.
But if you make too much money to meet their income requirements (and not enough to afford insurance), careful shopping can help.
Many major pharmacies including Walmart and Publix provide free or low-cost generic medications, including antibiotics.
• Free or low-cost immunizations and school physicals are available at public health departments. Walk-in clinics charge a reasonable fee for the service. Area hospitals team up with school districts and public health agencies to host back-to-school health fairs, which offer screenings and immunizations.
• Even if private insurance is out of reach, you might be able to afford Florida KidCare, which covers routine and emergency care — as well as vision, hearing and dental services. Families must earn no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (or $44,700 for a family of four) to qualify, and most families pay $15 to $20 a month.
For ob-gyn services
Public health clinics and community health centers provide routine exams, prenatal care, contraceptive counseling and diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, for free or on a sliding scale.
Try to stay healthy
There are inexpensive ways to stay out of the doctor's office. Grossman, the nurse practitioner at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, listed:
• Monitor your blood pressure at machines in drugstores.
• Stop smoking.
• Get a flu shot.
• Limit your salt intake.
• Walk for exercise.
• Drink water rather than soft drinks.
• Wash your hands frequently.
• Brush and floss your teeth twice a day.
• Use free screenings to get blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol checked.
One way to get a free mini-checkup is to donate blood. The screening process for donors includes a check of your blood pressure, pulse, iron count, temperature and cholesterol, according to Dan Eberts, a spokesman with Florida Blood Services. However, officials stress that people shouldn't use blood donation as a way to get screened for a sexually transmitted disease.
When do you need the ER?
People who are experiencing chest pains, stroke symptoms or serious abdominal pains should go directly to a hospital emergency room, Dr. Neil Morandi said.
Many emergency rooms also have people on hand to help uninsured patients and families figure out if they qualify for certain low-income health programs such as Medicaid and KidCare, said Lou Ann Watson, who coordinates the medical assistance program at BayCare,
Richard Martin can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3322