Unlike many other countries, the United States does not provide socialized health care. It will be helpful for you to learn about the local health care system before it is actually needed.
The American health care system is one of the best (and most expensive) in the world. Health care for a major accident or illness can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars; therefore, most Americans have health insurance to minimize the costs.
Yet the U.S. health care system is difficult to understand, even for Americans. New and pending legislation within the federal government complicates matters even further. Quality health care is available everywhere in the country from a variety of sources. The key lies in knowing the proper procedures, and in knowing where to go for specific kinds of care. This knowledge can save an international student significant amounts of time and money.
Health Care On Campus
Most college and university campuses offer some type of general medical care; services vary from basic first-aid and treatment of minor ailments to sophisticated multi-doctor primary care centers offering x-rays, laboratory tests, prescription drugs and access to specialists. The cost of on-campus medical services is normally not very expensive.
During your first week on campus, take a copy of your medical records (including immunization and vaccination records and prescriptions) to the school's health care center or infirmary.
Going Off Campus for Health Care
If you prefer to visit a medical practitioner off-campus, you have several choices (though the cost is generally higher). Private doctors treat non-emergency patients by appointment during regular office hours, typically 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Minor emergency clinics do not require appointments, and are usually open on weekends and holidays.
In case of serious emergency, go to the nearest hospital emergency room -- by ambulance if necessary. Hospital emergency rooms are designed to treat life-threatening ailments; this is typically the most expensive place to receive care.
If you need to use a medical facility, but are uncomfortable with your English skills, ask a friend to go with you. Proper communication is very important!
What You Need to Know About Health Insurance
Many colleges and universities have their own health insurance plans for their students. According to a recent independent study, larger U.S. schools tend to have better international student insurance programs than smaller schools. Participation in the plan is often mandatory, especially for non-U.S. students. If you are sponsored by an organization such as USAID or one of the Fulbright programs, that organization may have its own health insurance policy. If health insurance is not provided, the International Student Office at your new institution will be able to help you find a suitable plan that fits your needs, or visit International Student Insurance for more information.
A number of private companies offer insurance plans specifically designed for international students. The quality of these programs varies, so request advice from the on-campus International Student Office and other international students, especially students who have had experience with insurance claims.
Here are some basic insurance terms that will get you started in learning more about health care in the United States:
The premium is the amount that you pay to purchase the insurance coverage.
The deductible is the amount that the insured person must pay before the insurance company starts paying.
Co-Insurance is the percentage that the insured person pays after the deductible is paid. For example, if co-insurance equals 20 percent, then the insured person pays 20 percent and the insurance company pays 80 percent.
Expenses are the costs for services such as surgery, hospitalization, x-rays, prescription drugs, and/or laboratory tests; expenses are defined in the individual insurance contracts.
Important Questions to Consider When Selecting Insurance:
- Does the health insurance plan cover both accidents and illnesses?
- Does the plan cover costs incurred outside of a hospital setting?
- Which doctors or hospitals does the plan recognize?
- What exactly are the exclusions and limitations?
International students are responsible for the expenses they incur while in the United States. As such, U.S. law requires universities to verify that international students on J-1 visas (and their J-2 dependents) have health insurance before allowing them to enroll. The federal government does not require students on F1 visas to have health insurance, but many schools require it.
The most important thing you can do is learn more; study the details of your insurance plan, and get familiar with its rules and regulations. Also, try to maintain a healthy lifestyle to minimize your chances of illness or injury that may require medical treatment while you are studying in the United States.