You’d love to have health insurance, but you simply can’t afford it. That’s a problem for many Americans. However, the good news is that even if your budget is tight, you still may be able to get health coverage.
There are four primary ways that low-income Americans can qualify for free health insurance or medical services:
1. A state’s health insurance exchange.
3. A community health center supported by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).
4. A local health care facility that provides free care under the Hill-Burton Act.
Additionally, some cities, including San Francisco and Washington, D.C., offer free or reduced-cost health care programs for qualifying residents.
4 ways you may qualify for free health care
1. Health insurance exchanges
Starting on Oct. 1, 2013, Americans can shop for health insurance on their state’s health insurance exchange. Depending on whether you have affordable insurance at work and your income, you might be eligible for a tax credit that reduces the cost of health insurance.
Erin Moaratty, chief of mission delivery at the Patient Advocate Foundation, says, “One advantage of the exchanges is that, if you qualify for free health insurance offered by your state, [the insurance application] process will automatically alert you and facilitate enrollment into those programs all from the same application.”
Prior to October, you should go to your Department of Social Services to investigate if you qualify for free or reduced-cost health programs through a state or local agency.
According to Moaratty, to get free insurance through an exchange or Medicaid you need to submit “previous tax returns, current payroll stubs and statements showing any other benefits you receive, as well as proof of identity and citizenship. For public health insurance programs, you’ll also need to have documents ready supporting your eligibility, like your disability determination letter or medical documentation if you qualify during a pregnancy.”
Legal immigrants are permitted to use the exchanges and receive the tax credit, but illegal immigrants aren’t.
Medicaid covers low-income Americans and certain people with disabilities. Depending on your income and location, Medicaid coverage might be free. Visit medicaid.gov to find information about the Medicaid program in your state.
Starting in 2014, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, will expand Medicaid in some states. The program will cover Americans under age 65 with an annual income up to $15,281 for a single person or $31,321 for a family of four.
Legal immigrants can receive Medicaid after they have lived in the United States for five years, but illegal immigrants cannot.
3. Community health centers
Depending on your income, you may be eligible to receive free health care at one of the community health centers funded by the HRSA, even if you have no health insurance.
Recently, the Affordable Care Act provided $11 billion to help community health centers hire and train staff, serve more patients and care for those who are uninsured. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $2 billion for the same purpose.
HRSA administrator Mary Wakefield says the health centers provide “a unique opportunity to reach the uninsured in their communities and help connect them with the benefits of health insurance coverage under the health care law.”
In order to receive free health care at a community health center, you must provide proof of U.S. residency and proof of income. Check with your local center to find out any additional documentation that is required. You can search for the closest center on the HRSA’s website.
4. Hill-Burton free health care facilities
There are 166 medical facilities in the country that must provide free care under the Hill-Burton Act, a federal law that passed in 1946, according to the HRSA. The Hill-Burton Act authorizes federal funding for public and nonprofit medical facilities, such as acute care general hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities, typically for construction or renovation purposes.
You’re eligible to apply for Hill-Burton free health care if your income is at or below the federal poverty line. For 2013, that translates to $11,490 for a single person or $23,550 for a family of four in most states.
Check with your local facility to find out what documents are needed. You may have to provide a pay stub or other proof of income. You can find a list of Hill-Burton facilities at hrsa.gov.
You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen to be eligible for Hill-Burton free care, but you must have lived in the United States for at least three months.