Don't have a job with health insurance benefits? Lose your job and can't afford a COBRA plan? Regardless of the situation (and even if you are insured), you can still get care, and you should. What you may not have realized is that your local health department provides a level of basic care for a nominal (or free) cost – let's take a look at what is provided in many cases.
No Insurance and Not much Money? You can still get medical care.
If you fall in the gap of not qualifying for Medicaid or other tax payer finance health care initiatives, you can still receive medical care at minimal cost at your local health department. The cost, if any, is often determined on a sliding scale based on your annual income, and is considerably less than the minimum of $100-200 dollars it would take to visit a for-profit walk-in clinic. Health departments are typically organized on the state and county level, and operated with tax payer dollars. In addition to health departments, some members of your community may offer free or "donation" clinics (like the Hope Health Clinic in Georgia) available, private clinics that rely heavily on volunteer resources from medical personnel in the community and donations from individuals to operate. They also provide great volunteer opportunities if you are so inclined. Health departments are a valuable resource for students and international travelers as well, as they can often obtain copies of your birth certificate and provide immunizations necessary for school or foreign travel, and they often have translation services.
NOT for Emergency Care
I do want to point out before going further, that if you are in need of emergency medical treatment; go to your local emergency room. Regardless of your financial situation, the hospital is required to stabilize you, as a patient, before discharging you. This is a U.S. Federal standard provided by the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act.
Health Screenings, Mental Health, & STD Testing
Almost every health department provides general health screenings - so if you are concerned about a lump, a cut, the red striations along your back, or are just feeling under the weather, you can get checked out. Birth control and family planning services are also provided. In addition to general health screenings (and sometimes, full physicals), more specific care like cancer screenings are offered, either routinely or in certain parts of the year. Mental Health care has also become a major focus of many health departments in hopes of erasing the stigma attached to asking for help, and helping hundreds of thousands of individuals in the process.
One of your health department's primary goals is preventing the transmission of communicable diseases, with sexually transmitted diseases being at the top of the list. If you are sexually active, you owe it to yourself and your partners to be tested at least once a year, and most health departments provide a battery of STD tests free of charge. This effort to curb communicable diseases extends into the world of vaccination as well, as many immunizations, including the battery of immunizations required for most schools, colleges, and some work environments are provided at little or no cost to the patient along with tuberculosis screenings.
Anonymity and Cost Efficiency
Most public health departments operate with a high degree of anonymity, as they routinely deal with more uncomfortable health issues. Waiting rooms are broken down by clinic, with more sensitive clinics often using an identification number instead of name. On-site pharmacies are also often present, with physicians taking cost into account in prescribing at times – a drug that is prescribed and taken by the patient that costs less and may be less efficacious is of superior value in comparison to an expensive pharmaceutical that is prescribed and never filled by a pharmacist.
Providing Less Routine Care Some community health departments offer dental care and eye exams along with general "wellness" classes on topics like smoking cessation and procedures like colonoscopies and ultrasounds. Local health departments often cater to children, and in some cases, even offer low cost insurance for children as well, regardless of the parent's insurance status. This care often extends until the child is 19, taking them well into adolescence and the beginning of their college years.
Paid by your Taxes
If you are worried about the state of your body, it's best to get it checked out, regardless of your financial situation. Check with your local health department, as the services offered provided can vary, and larger cities may have more beneficial programs. Your tax dollars pay for these opportunities, so if you need them, take use of them and keep yourself healthy. It is in their best interest to keep you healthy too – a healthy person is more likely to pay their taxes.
Top image and bottom images courtesy of the AP. Data gained through a survey of public health offerings in the United States.