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If you have money, healthcare in the United States is the best in the world. Visitors to the United States, however, face shockingly high prices if they don't purchase short-term health insurance for their visits to the USA.

America is a great place to visit. It has a vibrant culture, vast spaces, spectacular sights, and unique internationally famous attractions all its own.

America is bad place, unfortunately, to get sick. Americans struggle to pay for medical care, and even a simple emergency room visit can cost $2 thousand, $5 thousand, $10 thousand, or more, if you don't have insurance, and prescription medications cost up to 10 times more than they do in other countries.

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Emergency Care in the USA Is a Legal Right for Everyone

It is a well-know fact that public emergency rooms in the United States are required to see any patient who comes in the door without consideration of his or her ability to pay. For many uninsured Americans, emergency rooms are the provider of last resort when no other clinics or doctors will see them.

The fact that an emergency room is required to see you, however, does not mean you will like it. Waits of three, five, and ten hours are not uncommon. In inner-city public hospitals, you may be ushered into a semi-private examination bay with only a plastic curtain separating you from a patient who has come in with projectile vomiting, or a person who has been threatening suicide, or an accident victim who receives a surgical procedure just an arm's length away from you. You won't have privacy for changing your clothes, going to the toilet, or discussing the most private matters with your doctor. And you'll be presented a bill for services before you are allowed to walk out the door. This unpleasant emergency room, however, may be part of a hospital offering the best surgical services for trauma patients--all of whom are seen before walk-in patients--in the state or region of the country.

Wealthier Cities Tend to Have Very Pleasant, and Very Expensive, Emergency Rooms

In some wealthier suburbs, the ER experience is quite different. You may be ushered into a room with walls and a door, a flat-screen TV, a telephone, a comfortable bed, a private bathroom, and meal service. In these facilities, however, the bill is even higher--although you may not be asked for any payment at all before you leave.

American hospitals usually will be very reasonable in making arrangements for payment--just don't abuse the system. And if at all possible, arrange for an inexpensive insurance policy that at least covers emergency care for accidents, usually available for no more than $30 for a 30-day stay, before you arrive.

The bottom line on emergency room care in the USA is that even though emergency care is available to anyone who needs it, you'll still be handed a bill. Don't plan on using emergency rooms. Every visitor to the USA should take out a traveler's insurance policy.

  • Bacaner N, Stauffer B, Boulware DR, Walker PF, Keystone JS. Travel medicine considerations for North American immigrants visiting friends and relatives. JAMA. 2004 Jun 16. 291(23):2856-64.
  • Gurgle HE, Roesel DJ, Erickson TN, Devine EB. Impact of traveling to visit friends and relatives on chronic disease management.J Travel Med. 2013 Mar. 20(2):95-100. doi: 10.1111/jtm.12010. Epub 2013 Jan 31.
  • Photo courtesy of Grant Wickes by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/grantwickes/7417128656/

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