08/09/2012 05:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Free or Low-cost Medical Care Is Available Right Now if You Need It

Finding affordable health care is a challenge for many people, with and without insurance. People often go without necessary preventative or regular care and medical problems fester and become much worse. "Much worse" can be translated into "much more expensive." Or people use the emergency room as their primary care treatment option, only to wind up with big bills they can't afford. So what are people to do?

I spent a number of years in the medical field. I even ran medical practices. But even I was unaware until recently about one really good option for people struggling to find more affordable medical care -- the federally funded community health center program.

Community health centers provide a range of health services for those in need. Fees are based on a sliding scale based on income and ability to pay. Health centers are located in all 50 states and provide access for all.

Services provided include:

  • Checkups when you're well
  • Treatment when you're sick
  • Complete care when you're pregnant
  • Immunizations and checkups for your children
  • Dental care and prescription drugs for your family
  • Mental health and substance abuse care if you need it

Community health centers receive federal funding to help offset some of the cost of services provided. And more money for these centers has recently been made available under Obamacare (Affordable Care Act).

People of all ages utilize the centers with nearly half of the patients between 25 to 64.

In 2011, the health center program:

Served 20.2 million patients:
  • 93 percent below 200 percent poverty
  • 72 percent below 100 percent poverty
  • 36 percent uninsured
  • 1,087,431 homeless individuals
  • 862,808 farmworkers
  • 187,992 residents of public housing

Provided 80 million patient visits in 1,128 organizations across more than 8,500 service sites.

Employed more than 138,000 staff including:
  • 9,900 physicians
  • 6,900 nurse practitioners, physicians assistants and certified nurse midwives

As am example of the low fees that are charged, check out the fee charts from a couple of community health centers.

As you can see, for those with low income, with or without health insurance, the cost of a visit is much more affordable than you would otherwise expect. For example, a visit to a local primary care physician on Main Street for a routine office visit can sometime approach or top $300. I know people who avoid going to the doctor because they can't afford regular care. From now on I'm going to suggest the community health center program as a place for them to go.

Each community health center has its own process to be qualified for low-cost treatment. It typically involves completing a one-page form to provide income information. Overall, it is a simple process.

Fees are based on poverty guidelines. The most recent data on poverty measurement can be found here.

Generally you would be asked to bring with you the following information to help qualify for free or low-cost medical care: Picture ID (government issued driver's license, ID card or passport), Proof of Address or local residency (utility or telephone bill, bank statement), last year's tax return or W-2s, paystubs for the most recent month, bank statement reflecting electronic deposit of Social Security, income or child support or letter of determination from Social Services, and an employer earning statement, signed and on company letterhead. Again, each center will have their own requirements, but it will be similar to this information.

As you can see from the sample form below, it's not a scary process to become qualified for low-cost or even free services.

Some of the medical care centers are even located at local schools. Recently, $75 million in new investments was made available for school health centers as a result of the Affordable Care Act.

School-based health centers enable children to attend school as well as help to improve the overall health. By making the connection to health care easy, school-based health centers ensure that children have access to the services they need to lead healthy lives.

My local community health center. Not scary.

I would imagine that the biggest hurdle community health center's have to overcome is one of public perception. But if you need affordable and low-cost health care, I would suggest you give them a chance to help before you judge them. Try out your local center (my local center is shown above). Give them a chance to show you what they can do for you.

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