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Survival tips for the uninsured

Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Chicago Journal News-Star

One View
A few months ago, I met Mary at a community meeting. She asked me to read something for her because her vision had become "blurred". She went on to tell me she has been losing weight and feeling tired. She said she hadn't seen a doctor in five years because she lost her health insurance when she changed jobs and could not afford to pay medical bills. She didn't know how to access affordable health care. A couple of weeks later Mary called, and told me she saw a physician at a local hospital-based clinic who diagnosed her with having diabetes. She said she was feeling better, but wished she would have seen a doctor years before because now she has impaired vision and damage to her kidneys.

April 26 through May 3, 2008 has been designated "Cover the Uninsured Week" throughout the nation. In the United States, we have over 47 million persons who are uninsured. The State of Illinois ranks fifth out of 50 states as having the highest number of uninsured residents, with 1.8 million Illinoisans living without health insurance. In Rogers Park and surrounding communities, it is estimated that one out of three community residents are uninsured or underinsured.

What can you do to access health care if you are uninsured?

1. You can receive out patient clinic care through a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC). Fees are assessed using a sliding scale based on your income. The minimum that you would be charged for a visit would be $15. FQHC's are also required to prescribe discounted medications.

There are a few FQHCs available to local residents: Heartland Health Centers in Uptown and Rogers Park, Evanston-Rogers Park Access Community Health Center and Asian Human Services in Edgewater and Rogers Park.

2. You can receive out-patient care at a local not-for-profit clinic affiliated with a hospital. There are two such clinics available to local residents: St. Francis Clinic and Evanston Hospital Outpatient Clinic, both in Evanston. Connecting to a hospital based clinic might be wise for persons already dealing with medically complex problems.

Both of the Evanston not-for-profit clinics have affiliated "charity care programs." You can ask to apply for the "charity care program" in order to receive discounted or free care based on a sliding scale.

Although you can ask to sign up for charity care at any time, it is more beneficial to sign up for a charity care program prior to becoming sick.

Establishing a "medical home" and primary care provider are crucial to preventing the onset of chronic illness. In other words, if you are healthy, but uninsured, apply for charity care at a not-for-profit clinic or apply for sliding scale care at a local FQHC, and go get a routine physical. Then, the next time you are sick, you will have an established health care provider who knows you, your medical history and can plan the best treatment plan for you.

2. Another resource for the uninsured is the Stroger (Cook County Hospital) Adult Screening Clinic (ASC) located at 1901 West Harrison. The ASC is open seven days per week, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday through Sunday. The Adult Screening Clinic accepts walk-in patients regardless of ability to pay.

What you can do if you cannot afford the medications your health care provider has prescribed:

1. Tell the prescribing provider that you cannot afford the price of the medication. In some cases, health care providers can prescribe generic alternatives or provide samples.

2. Howard Area Community Center has a medication assistance program to help community residents apply for certain prescription medications directly from pharmaceutical companies.

3. Check local "big box" store pharmacies, such as Wal-Mart or Target, to see if the medication you need is part of their reduced price medication program.

Most importantly, learn to advocate for yourself and your family if you are uninsured. Ask questions of your health care providers and of the local hospitals. Join a community-organizing group working on community health issues. Northside P.O.W.E.R, Organization of the Northeast and Neighbors for a Healthy Rogers Park all are organizing around building a healthier community.

Monica Dillon, R.N., is the community and public health nurse for the Howard Area Community Center and a health activist in Rogers Park.

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