Can Homeless People Go to the Hospital?

A hospital emergency room.

The United States has a homeless problem and that’s obvious to anybody who’s driven through any large city and looked on the sidewalks in the downtown section, particularly at night. The USA also has a healthcare problem and that’s just as obvious to anybody who’s had to see a doctor or visit a hospital without insurance, or those who tried to get insurance with a pre-existing condition.


So with both of these problems in our country, it seems that homeless people would really have a tough time when it comes to going to a hospital or getting medical attention. The average homeless person certainly can’t afford health insurance if the average working person without benefits can’t.

Well a few years ago I was homeless myself in Calfornia and there were a few times I had to go to the hospital and other times I had to see a doctor and some of it was difficult, but it was not as hard as I expected it to be. So here’s the low-down on how homeless people can go to the hospital, pay their bills, or get to see a doctor when they have something seriously wrong with them.


What Hospitals Do for the Homeless
As a homeless person, you can visit any hospital in the United States and they cannot turn you away if it’s something that’s immediately life-threatening. If it’s not, they may accept you in the emergency room but they won’t run any tests or try to fix whatever is wrong with you if it’s not deemed to be life-threatening. For example, if you’re feeling light-headed and have chest pains, they’ll accept you in the emergency room if you just walk in and they’ll run any necessary tests to make sure it’s not a heart attack or other serious problem.


But if they run these tests and discover you also have cancer, they usually won’t treat your cancer unless you’re on the verge of dying from it. I knew a homeless man who had liver cirrhosis and doctors said he had less than a few months to live, but they wouldn’t give him a liver transplant or operate on him because it wasn’t immediately life-threatening and because the operation was risky and not guaranteed to work. If he were to walk in there on the day he’s dying in pain and with a high temperature, they would provide him with a bed and enough care to ease his pain while he’s there, but they would not do the surgery on him without him having money or medical insurance for it.


Wait Times
Wait times will vary, depending on what is wrong with you. If it’s an emergency or something that is urgent, you’ll usually be seen right away. The wait time may vary up to 7 hours in cases like this, but you can still visit the emergency room like anybody else and wait in the lobby until it’s your turn. As far as the emergency room knows, you’re a regular patient just like anybody else. It isn’t until after you’re treated and finished seeing the doctor that you’ll have to speak to someone in billing. It’s usually a better idea to talk to billing beforehand, just to make sure that the hospital offers some sort of discount program.


However, in most cases they will and so if it’s actually an emergency, you may just want to visit the emergency room immediately. As far as the wait times to see surgeons, specialists, or other things that are not considered to be emergencies, the wait time will usually be weeks or months if you’re doing it through one of the discount programs. The average time for one similar type of program in California to see a specialist was one month minimum to around 3 months maximum. So there is definitely a disadvantage when you sign up as being disadvantaged. But again, wait times can vary from place to place so check the exact details of the program in your area.


Paying Bills
When it comes to paying your bill, you need to make sure to ask about special programs and specifically mention that you’re low-income or homeless. Only a person in the billing department can actually answer these questions, so make sure you speak to one of them. Many hospitals have programs that are designed to make health care affordable for those who can’t already afford it. Most hospitals can not turn people away for being sick, so they had to work out a way to make up for all the lost money that occurs as a result of homeless people being unable to pay. So many of them get tax benefits or receive compensation from the government for people who are eligible to be enrolled in low-income or homeless programs. So going to see a doctor can end up costing you nothing, if you can prove you’re in fact homeless.


If you’re a low-income citizen than you may end up paying only $10 to see a doctor if they enroll you in a program for low-income people. But again, you’d have to prove that, and it’s usually through printed bank statements that these things can be proven. Just make sure that you ask about these types of programs and enroll in them before you leave the hospital. If you decide to just leave, they’ll usually just send your bill to your address on file. If too much time passes and the hospital doesn’t know you’re homeless or low-income, then they will most likely send your bill to a collections agency. Once that happens, it’s too late to apply for the programs mentioned and you’ll end up owing the full bill or whatever the collections agency decides to make you pay.


Collections and Debts
If a hospital has no program for low-income people (which many of them do), then you may have a very large bill sent to you in the mail after you leave. This of course depends on whether you gave them a mailing address where you can be reached or not, but it’s better to make sure you can receive any mail from them somehow. Sometimes hospitals will send information about their discount programs along with a bill, to inform you about them so you don’t have to pay the full charges. If you are unable to pay a hospital bill, the hospital itself will usually sell your account to a collections or debt company who will harass you and stalk you until you pay them. The debt becomes theirs after they purchase it from the hospital, though they won’t be able to see any of your medical records or confidential information.

They can be very persistent when it comes to collecting money, which is how they’re able to operate as a business and buy debts from other companies. Eventually they may have to give up on you and cancel the debt if they realize you’re unable to pay, but in most cases they will threaten legal action and even take you to court if the debt is significant enough. But frankly, for most homeless people, this isn’t something they have to worry about because collection agencies can’t really do anything to a person who has nothing or who is hard to locate and track down.


However, once you get back on your feet, your debt may still be there if it hasn’t reached the statute of limitations yet and the company may then take you to court and get you to agree in front of a judge that you’ll pay them so much. If you default and don’t pay, they may be able to levy your bank account or garnish wages from your job. So this is why you should always make sure you try to settle a bill and get on any discount programs with the hospital or clinic, before it actually gets sold over to a collections agency. You will usually have anywhere from one to three months to do this, before they sell your account and debt.

In addition to hospitals, there’s many clinics and other medical programs in most areas that the homeless can utilize. It’s really all about knowing where to go or knowing where to look. A search on the internet can usually be worth it in finding locations where you can get cheap or free medical care. In most cases, there will be some form of waiting period that you’ll have to go through. This waiting period may be because there’s a long list of people who are waiting to be seen by a doctor, or it could be because of other reasons.


In some cities there are medical vans which can provide basic medical care to homeless people, such as check-ups and blood tests that can be sent to the lab. If you’re unable to find any places when checking the internet, try to just find all the health clinics in your area and call each place, one by one. Ask them if they have any discount programs for homeless or those who are low-income. Many clinics won’t let you know about these types of programs unless you specifically ask. Often times, the clinics that offer discounted programs or services are the same ones that charge an arm and a leg from people when they’re able to pay.