If you're among the millions of Americans who lack health insurance, you may be falling into the habit of putting off basic care for as long as you can. When your situation becomes dire, you may go anywhere you can for fast help, including an emergency room. The following tips can point you to avenues for lining up health coverage, as well as alternatives to the ER for basic and preventive care.
1. CONSIDER COBRA. Under a federal law called the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, you have the right to keep paying for your own health insurance for at least 18 months if you lose a job that had provided coverage. The catch: You must pay the entire premium yourself. Ouch.
2. ASK INSURERS ABOUT SHORT-TERM COVERAGE. If you lost a job and accompanying health insurance, your former health policy may provide a lower-cost, short-term coverage option to tide you over until you start your next job. Call your health plan, a health insurance broker or Blue Cross for details.
3. A HIGH-DEDUCTIBLE POLICY IS BETTER THAN NOTHING. To safeguard yourself from catastrophic health-care bills, you could get an insurance policy with a deductible of $2,000 or more for $30 to $40 a month.
4. AFFECTED BY TRADE POLICY? If you've lost your job because your employer is using more workers or products overseas, you may be able to benefit from the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Reform Act. You could have 65 percent of your health insurance costs covered for up to three years. Call toll-free 1-866-628-4282.
5. DO YOU QUALIFY FOR GOVERNMENT HELP? If you simply cannot afford health insurance, options exist for low-income families. The primary programs in Florida are Medicaid (www.cms.hhs.gov/medicaid/consumer.asp, 1-888-419-3456) and Florida KidCare (www.floridakidcare.org, 1-888-540-5437).
6. LOOK INTO FREE AND LOW-COST CLINICS. The Free Clinic Foundation of America (www.freeclinic.net) provides contact information for more than 350 free and low-cost clinics. Your county's public health department also provides care on a sliding fee scale.
7. GET FREE OR LOW-COST SCREENINGS. Get mammograms and Pap smears through the Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov/cancer/nbccedp/contacts.htm or 1-888-842-6355, Option 7). The American Cancer Society (1-800-227-2345) offers screenings too.
8. ASK YOUR DOCTOR FOR FREE DRUG SAMPLES. He or she likely has them for the taking. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America also publishes a directory at www.helpingpatients.org that describes eligibility criteria for various free drug programs. Another Web site that can point you to assistance programs is www.needymeds.com.
9. TAKE CARE OF YOUR VISION. Lions Club International offers free vision screenings, as well as recycled glasses. Other sources of help include the American Optometric Association (www.aoanet.org) and the American Academy of Ophthalmology's EyeCare America foundation (www.eyecareamerica.org, 1-800-222-EYES).
10. LINE UP REASONABLE DENTAL CARE. For a list of dental schools that provide low-cost treatment, visit the American Dental Education Association online (www.adea.org/links/links-R.html). Many free clinics also offer dental services.
Sources: MSN Money (http://moneycentral.org); Cover the Uninsured (http://covertheuninsuredweek.org); HealthyWomen.org (www.healthywomen.org)