How to Obtain Charity Care

Woman receiving medical care at a temporary free health clinic
Doctors and dentists often volunteer their services in underserved areas of the country through temporary free clinics.

John Moore / Getty Images

Millions of Americans go without health insurance coverage every year. According to U.S. Census data, 28 million people—about 8.6% of the population—had no coverage at any point during 2020.

Though this number is down from the 42 million who were uninsured in 2013, before the bulk of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was implemented, it's still a significant number. And the uninsured rate has increased since 2017, after several years of decreases following the enactment of the ACA in 2010.

Being Uninsured Means Less Health Care

Unfortunately, those without health insurance will have a much more difficult time finding timely and affordable treatment for health issues and overall medical care. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, those without insurance tend to not get preventative care which includes important screenings for diseases.

In fact, 50% of uninsured adults under the age of 65 said they didn't have a source they regularly used for health care—versus just 11% of the people who had private health insurance and 12% of those with Medicaid. However, if you are uninsured, you still have several options when you need medical care.

Options for the Uninsured

If you're uninsured, here are some of your options:

  • Emergency Rooms: Passed in 1986, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) requires emergency rooms (that accept Medicare, which is virtually all of them) across the United States to assess and stabilize anyone who walks through the door, regardless of their healthcare plan or their ability to pay. Thus, the emergency room (ER) can be visited for free health care in emergency situations, which includes pregnant women in labor.
    But it's important to understand the limitation of EMTALA: The law only requires the emergency room to assess the patient and stabilize them if necessary. They do not have to provide any other treatment beyond what's necessary for stabilization. So while they can't let a patient bleed to death without intervening, they are not required to provide any sort of treatment after the patient is stabilized. So relying on the ER is not an adequate solution in most circumstances.
  • Federally Qualified Health Centers: These clinics provide services on a sliding fee scale in underserved communities, particularly in rural areas. They receive federal grants to fund their operations (in addition to payments from Medicaid and private insurers, when patients have those forms of coverage) and must meet various federal guidelines. You can use this locator tool to find federally qualified health centers near you.
  • Other Free and Sliding Scale Clinics: In addition to federally qualified health centers, there are other free and sliding scale clinics located throughout the United States, often run by churches or non-profit organizations. These clinics provide health care to local low-income residents and needy individuals, and the fees at these clinics typically depend on your income.
  • Temporary Free Clinics: Medical and dental professionals sometimes volunteer their time to staff temporary clinics that offer free treatment in underserved areas. These pop-up clinics typically last just a day or two, and can be located in school gyms, churches, fairgrounds, or any other publicly available space, with numerous medical providers assisting a large volume of patients simultaneously.
    Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps is an organization that runs medical, dental, and vision pop-up clinics; you can find more information about their available clinics here. You can also find pop-up dental clinics here, sponsored by the America's Dentists Care Foundation. You can also contact your county public health department to see if there are any free pop-up clinics scheduled for your area in the near future, and to get information about what you'll need to do in order to participate.
  • Charity Care: As the name suggests, charity care is just that; charity. Charity care, also commonly referred to as uncompensated health care, is health care provided for free, or at a reduced cost, to people with limited income who would otherwise be unable to pay for their treatment.
    Charity care is available at participating hospitals and similar healthcare facilities, and while patients generally need to apply for it, some hospitals are required to screen for it before sending patients' bills to collections. While a community health center or free clinic primarily treats people with limited ability to pay, charity care is provided at hospitals and facilities that typically treat insured patients and those with the ability to pay, but that agree to also provide a certain amount of charity care to patients who are unable to pay.

How to Obtain Charity Care

If you're in need of care that can't be provided at a free or sliding scale clinic, and you have fairly low income and are unable to pay for your treatment—either because you're uninsured or because you can't afford your health plan's out-of-pocket costs—you'll want to familiarize yourself with how charity care works at the nearby hospitals, and what state regulations apply.

The Affordable Care Act implemented some new rules that apply to tax-exempt charitable hospitals [26 U.S. Code 501(r)] in an effort to ensure that patients' bills aren't sent to collections until after the hospital determines whether the patient is eligible for charity care.

There are also a variety of state-based laws and regulations relating to charity care. For example:

  • Colorado requires hospitals to limit charges to the lowest amount that the hospital has negotiated with any insurance company, as long as the patient's income is less than 250% of the poverty level. (federal poverty level numbers can be found here).
  • New Jersey's hospital charity care program applies to all acute care hospitals in the state and provides free or reduced-price medically necessary services to people whose income doesn't exceed 300% of the poverty level, and who have limited assets.
  • In California, a patient is eligible for free or reduced care at acute care hospitals if their income doesn't exceed 350% of the poverty level and they're either uninsured or if they are insured, their medical expenses exceed 10% of their income.
  • In Illinois, patients can qualify for charity care discounts with income as high as 600% of the poverty level and are eligible for free care if their income doesn't exceed 200% of the poverty level.

But many other states have less generous guidelines and leave more of the details up to the hospitals. And even in states where hospitals are limited in terms of how much they can charge uninsured patients, these requirements typically don't extend to the individual medical providers who practice in the hospital but bill separately for their services.

You can find out more information about the specific requirements in your state by contacting your state's hospital association, reaching out to the state insurance department, or asking to speak directly with a social worker or financial assistance counselor at your local hospital.

If you're applying for financial assistance through the hospital's charity care program, be prepared to provide proof of income and assets, and information about any insurance coverage you may have, including the out-of-pocket costs that you have to pay.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I go to the ER if I don't have insurance?

    Yes, but only in an emergency. By law, any hospital that accepts Medicare must assess and stabilize any patient that comes through the door regardless of insurance status.

    However, they are only required to stabilize the patient. They do not need to provide any treatment beyond emergency or life-saving measures. For example, a heart attack, a pregnant woman in labor, or a bleeding wound are emergencies a hospital is required to treat.

  • What is Charity Care?

    Charity Care is free or low-cost medical treatment provided to people with a limited income who would otherwise be unable to pay for care. In most cases, you would need to apply for Charity Care. 

    Charity Care is offered at many local hospitals and health care centers. If you think you qualify for Charity Care, call medical facilities in your area or check with your state's hospital association. 

  • Is Charity Care insurance?

    No. Charity Care is a program run by local hospitals that provides free or reduced-cost medical care to people below certain income limits who do not have health insurance. Each state sets its own guidelines for Charity Care eligibility.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Keisler-Starkey, Katherine; Bunch, Lisa N. U.S. Census Bureau. Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2020.

  2. Garfield R, Orgera K, Damico A. The Uninsured and the ACA: A Primer - Key Facts about Health Insurance and the Uninsured amidst Changes to the Affordable Care Act. Kaiser Family Foundation.

  3. American College of Emergency Physicians. EMTALA Fact Sheet.

  4. Colorado Consumer Health Initiative. Hospital Financial Assistance.

  5. New Jersey State Department of Health. Health Care for the Uninsured Program. New Jersey Hospital Care Payment Assistance Fact Sheet.

  6. Community Catalyst. California's Hospital Fair Pricing Policies Law.

  7. Illinois Health and Hospital Association. Hospital Uninsured Patient Discount Act.

Additional Reading

By Kelly Montgomery
 Kelly Montgomery, JD, is a health policy expert and former policy analyst for the American Diabetes Association.