In most places it is entirely possible to go to the emergency room with no insurance, but whether or not this means that the visit is free is largely a matter of circumstance. Some places, including the United States, have passed laws that require emergency room (ER) personnel to care for anyone who comes in, regardless of the patient’s ability to pay. In many cases these patients receive discounted care, but not always. A lot depends on the seriousness of the condition and the costs involved in running labs, performing examinations, and doing diagnostic tests. Even people with insurance often find that ER visits are very expensive. If you don’t have insurance or don’t have full coverage, you might want to look at alternatives, like walk-in clinics or urgent care centers, for times when your condition isn’t life-threatening.
How ERs Work
An emergency rooms is usually the most accessible part of any hospital. It is where patients arrive when being transported by ambulance, and is where people often enter the hospital when they need immediate care. Most hospitals organize their ERs on a triage system, where people are treated in order of the severity of their condition rather than based on who arrived first. This way, medical personnel are able to provide the best treatment possible to people who have life-threatening or otherwise critical injuries.
Things in ERs tend to be really fast-paced, particularly in true emergencies. As such, it’s relatively rare for doctors or administrators to ask a person about insurance coverage before beginning treatment. In the United States and some other places, asking about the ability to pay is actually illegal. In this respect, then, if you go to the emergency room with no insurance you will be treated. This is really important if your life is on the line. You will probably be billed for the visit, though, and the costs involved could be really steep.
Different countries and even different localities run their emergency medical services according to their own sets of rules and stipulations. You might find policy disparities between countries, and the sort of care you receive will often depend on where you are and what rules are in force. In many places, there are a number of public hospitals where anyone can go for treatment, but private hospitals are for people with certain health plans or insurance packages only. You probably won’t be able to gain admittance to one of these sorts of facilities if you aren’t a member or if you haven’t been pre-approved. Medical personnel might treat you if you’re dying or near death, but they might also refer you to public facilities no matter your circumstances. A lot depends on the place and the overarching laws.
In the United States, a person can go to the emergency room with no insurance, but treatment will usually only be covered by the government’s social health plan if certain conditions are met. In 1986, a federal law was passed requiring all hospitals that participate in the federal Medicare program, which is almost every hospital in the United States, to accept emergency room patients regardless of whether they have insurance or the financial resources to pay. This law does, however, have some stipulations as to what counts as an emergency, and has a “sliding scale” of what hospitals can charge for various services provided.
Federal law requires the receiving hospital assess the patient's condition and provide necessary care to stabilize him or her without inquiring about the ability to pay. The hospital cannot transfer a patient until his or her condition has been stabilized unless the condition requires facilities beyond the scope of the receiving hospital. For example, a small hospital may transfer a patient to a larger hospital with a trauma center in order to better care for the patient.
The law also applies to insurance companies who may try to illegally require pre-authorization for an emergency room visit. It clearly states that a patient cannot be denied care in an emergency room while waiting to receive pre-authorization from an insurance provider. After receiving treatment, however, you might face a battle with your insurance company if you received treatments the company deems as “unauthorized.”
Even hospitals that accept and treat patients without insurance rarely provide their services free of charge. Getting treatment does not mean the patient is not responsible for the resulting medical bills. If you do not have insurance, you will probably need to work out a payment arrangement with the hospital for the care you received in the ER. There are very few instances in which a patient will be pardoned from payment, and it is not usually the case that homeless people or low income families are spared from the high cost of emergency treatment.
Measuring a Condition’s Seriousness
Whether an ER visit makes sense might depend to some extent on the seriousness of your condition. Some conditions justify medical care in an emergency room no matter the cost; usually these are situations that place your health or life in serious jeopardy or where bodily functions or organs are seriously impaired. This would also usually include something like a pregnant woman who is in labor, if there is not enough time to safely transfer her to another hospital.
Many conditions, illnesses, and injuries may be deemed "non-emergency" if they do not pose a direct threat to a patient's life. In these instances, patients who do not have insurance might be turned away and referred to other medical facilities. If this is your situation you might also want to look at different alternatives — like urgent care clinics or community-based walk in health centers — purely as a cost-saving measure.