People are referred to hospitals in the U.S. more often than in other countries, even for tests and out-patient treatment. This is partially due to the extremely expensive lawsuits in America – many doctors will prefer to send you to a hospital if in any doubt about your condition than being sued by you or your family if something serious happens due to a wrong diagnosis.
If you’re admitted to a private hospital you will probably receive one of the best treatments in the world. However, private hospitals are extremely expensive. The cost of a hospital room alone can be up to $1000, and this does not include treatment, tests or medicines. You should therefore ensure that you have sufficient health insurance, or your hospital stay could turn into a financial disaster.
A general community hospital will normally be adequate for most treatments. For serious illnesses or major surgery, you might want to visit a university clinic or specialized clinic.
Note that there is no such thing as free hospital treatment in the U.S. All fees have to be paid for either by you or your insurance company, even in the case of an emergency.
If it is your decision whether or not to go into hospital, check your coverage with your insurance company. When going to a hospital or clinic, take proof of your health insurance coverage with you. If you are admitted to the hospital, your health insurance will cover the costs of that stay. The payment is made directly by the insurance company – you don’t have to pay it yourself first and then ask for reimbursements (you probably wouldn’t even be able to pay it anyway). If you get a bill from the hospital, send it directly to your insurance company – although in most hospitals your insurer will have to pay the bill before you leave the hospital.
What if you don’t have health insurance?
If you don’t have health insurance, you will probably have to pay a large deposit in order to be even admitted to the hospital (up to several thousand dollars). If you’re not able to pay this money, the hospital will simply not accept you.
In case of critical emergencies, you will usually be taken to the nearest hospital (private or public), even if you have no health insurance and are unable to pay. However, note that the world “critical” refers to life-threatening situations only. If you’ve broken your leg in a car accident, this might not be considered critical (you’ll probably survive but might never walk properly again).
If you’ve been taken to a private hospital, you may be transferred to a public hospital if your situation has stabilized. Public hospitals also offer out-patient treatment to uninsured patients without advance payment. However, this treatment is often of only a basic or even inadequate nature, and you should expect long waiting lists. Public hospitals are simply unable to cope with the millions of uninsured people, and the situation is getting worse due to increasing homelessness, AIDS, drug abuse and immigration.
Even if you receive treatment in a public hospital, you will get billed for it afterwards. If you can’t pay, the hospital is forced to sue you (even if you have nothing) to get reimbursement from the government. If you still can’t pay a court will judge against you, and this judgement will remain in effect for years.
We hope that after reading this section the message is clear - don’t try your luck by going to the U.S. without adequate hospital insurance. If you don’t have insurance and suddenly need treatment, be prepared for a very bad experience.