Nearly one in four patients treated at a hospital does not have health insurance for an individual. The National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems have reported a 10 percent increase in the cost of uncompensated care since the economic downturn of 2008. This financial strain could cause some hospitals to close their doors, leaving uninsured patients with untreated illness and lasting injury.

People find themselves without health insurance for a multitude of reasons. Patients may find themselves uninsured because of a recent job loss. Self-employed patients may lack insurance because the cost of a policy without a group discount is too high. Other patients may have pre-existing conditions or lifestyles that either disqualify them for insurance or cause their premiums to skyrocket. Whatever the reason, the number of uninsured Americans continues to climb.

By law, hospitals that accept Medicare funds must treat patients who come in through an emergency room without asking whether or not the patient has insurance. However, patients usually receive a large bill afterward, and hospitals aggressively press patients for payment. According to the Affordable Care Act, all nonprofit hospitals have to develop a written policy on financial assistance that delineates who qualifies for care and how to apply.

A study in the journal Health Affairs found that hospitals charge patients without insurance more money than they charge patients who have insurance. This happens because patients with insurance benefit from lower rates that the insurance company negotiates on their behalf. In fact, according to the study, uninsured patients sometimes pay two to three times the rate that an insured patient pays for the same care.

The Affordable Care Act stops hospitals from charging the full list price for patients who do not have insurance. The Act also forbids aggressive collection tactics, including garnishing wages, putting liens on property and notifying collection agencies without determining the patient's eligibility for financial assistance.

Patients who do not have health insurance can still obtain affordable health care. Consumer Reports suggests that patients without insurance take advantage of community health centers or free health fairs. Disease-specific programs like the Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Program will waive bills for women who live below a certain income level. Patients can ask their doctors to cut their bills, and they can comparison shop for prescription drugs. In addition, patients can seek public assistance, such as Medicaid or other state-run programs.

Unpaid medical bills rank as one of the top causes of bankruptcy in the United States. The lack of health insurance for an individual costs taxpayers and hospitals millions of dollars each year. To avoid lasting injury or illness, patients should seek low-cost alternatives or look for affordable health insurance options.

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