If you’re considering studying in the United States, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the country’s health care system. In an ideal world, you obviously wouldn’t need to, but it’s better to be safe than sorry because one day you could find yourself in an emergency situation in your time studying abroad.

Healthcare in the US is some of the most comprehensive- and expensive- in the world. It’s also an incredibly complicated system that many Americans themselves have difficulty navigating, and very few fully understand the the intricacies involved. With that in mind, here are the basics: five things you should know about the U.S. healthcare system.

Via Giphy.

1. Coverage is not universal

Unlike many countries, the United States does not have universal health coverage. President Obama and his administration have taken steps to change this, and “Obamacare,” as it’s now referred to, is certainly more “European” and all encompassing than previous U.S. health care systems. Still, the state doesn’t cover you; you’re expected to purchase your own private insurance, or obtain it through your university or workplace. In some cases, paying out of pocket can literally bankrupt you.

Nearly every university requires you to have insurance. 

2. It’s unlikely you’ll be admitted to study in the U.S. without first showing proof of health insurance, or opting into the university’s health plan

Apart from the university’s own requirements, it’s also a federal law that you have health insurance as a student if you’re on a J-1 visa to study in the States. If you’re on an F-1 visa, it’s not legally required, but of course, still highly recommended.

3. Most universities have their own health plans

Nearly all universities in the U.S. have their own on-campus health clinics and plans to cover the student body. Studies show that larger universities tend to have better health plans for their students, but even small institutions offer wide-ranging coverage. Opting into university health insurance plans tends to be cheaper than obtaining insurance via private companies. University plans also tend to be extensive, covering the basic first-aid or flu shots to X-rays, laboratory work, and even surgeries.

While it is normally up to the individual to select university health coverage or third party insurance, keep in mind that some universities may not allow you to opt out of their plan if your own private provider is located outside a certain radius from campus.

4. Fact: it’s complicated

Where you go for care mostly depends on your personal preferences. The U.S. health care system is made up of many sectors. There are private care doctors; urgent care centres; small and large-scale hospitals; walk-in clinics; university health centres; pharmacies; and specialty medical centres (think dermatology, or optometry).

The plan you purchase, or are provided with, will dictate the terms of where you can use this insurance. Some smaller doctors offices only accept certain types of insurance; larger hospitals may be more accommodating. In some cases, a walk-in clinic may treat you without any insurance at all.

Often the simplest route for international students is to take advantage of the on-campus university health clinic. This is usually the most convenient option as well, since chances are you’ll be living close to or on campus, a short distance from the health centre. If for some reason you opt out of university insurance, make sure to check with the clinics near your host university to find out what type of insurance they accept.

The key thing to remember is to avoid the emergency room if at all possible, since emergency care in the U.S. is exorbitantly expensive. Visits to the E.R. should be reserved for true emergencies and life-threatening illnesses. If you have the flu or a sore throat, schedule an appointment with your general health provider.

US healthcare operates on a “cost share” system, which means your medical costs are split with your insurance provider. You’ll generally pay a premium, meaning the money you turn over each month to opt into the plan. Then, in the event you need medical coverage, your deductible is the amount you pay out of pocket before your insurance kicks in and covers the rest. Different plans will have different premiums and deductibles.

You may also need to pay a co-payment, a small fee each time you visit the doctor. Usually, the “better” your insurance, the lower your co-pay. University insurance may not require co-pays at all.

It’s also likely your plan won’t cover everything. Expenses not included in your coverage will be detailed by the provider. Make sure to know what’s included and what’s not when you purchase the plan.

The important thing is to do your research. Not all health plans are created equally, and before you arrive at your host institution in the U.S., it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with your options. You can get in contact with the international student office at the university, and they can direct you towards the best choice of plans—either opting into the university’s student coverage, or choosing a private plan that caters to international students. Depending on who sponsors you or what programme you’re going through, your health care may be provided.

Also, to avoid a future headache, it’s probably best to take care of some things before you leave home. Dental and eye care are not commonly included in most health insurance plans, so make sure to pay a visit to your dentist and optometrist before you move abroad. In addition, it’s a good idea to come to the U.S. with a doctor’s note for any current prescriptions you may be taking.

Just bear in mind that the U.S. provides superb health coverage; the system is just a little different to what you’re used to in your home country. Do your research and get to know the best coverage options throughout your time abroad, so you can enjoy all that U.S. student life has to offer without any extra hassle.

Image via Shutterstock.

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