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Healthcare Tips for the Broke-Ass Masses

Updated: Jun 22, 2015 09:43
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Being a New Yorker is a little tough, all the time. Whether it’s the train that just left or coming up with the perfect save to that horrible interview question…. on the elevator going down, there’s always some bitty truth to the adage about making it here.

But we do ok, in general. We can usually afford a third beer and there’s four D trains for every F that never comes. We do ok, unless Something Happens. And when Something Happens- some shitty twist of employment, housing, health, relationship- that’s when you pussy up or move to Seattle. Last year Something Happened to me, health-wise, uninsured-wise, and therefore SOL finances-wise. When a mystery ailment goes from the relatively affordable ‘hipster with back pain’ to ‘yearlong undiagnosed Lyme Disease’ (oops!) you get an unwanted lesson into the labyrinthine US healthcare system. And after morosely handing a Hefty bag of 2011 medical bills to a tax broker and her laughing out loud, one realizes there’s rules of thumbs to be imparted to fellow uninsured BrokeAsses who get sick.

1. There are good low-cost clinics.

You just have to find them, and advocate for your right to competent care.  Remember that, though most doctors and PA’s mean well, they’ve also seen 300 people before you and have 300 after.  Come early for your appointment, be clear with your symptoms, and don’t let anyone shovel antidepressants at you if things aren’t totally, immediately clear. A doctor needing you to leave quickly has occasional pharmaceutical benefits: who wouldn’t love dumping a ream of uppers, downers and sleep aid scrips on the Duane Reade pharmacy counter and going home with a Pfizer warehouse worth of ‘when I need it’ Baclofen? It happens. When a situation is tough to understand, overworked clinic staff sometimes have to Cliff’s Notes your problem and pull out the Rx pad. So write symptoms and timelines down and don’t be afraid to question. Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’re undeserving of time. For the billing/financial aid office, be ready with proof of income. Sharpen fake crying skills, just in case. Or cry for real, if the need arises (which it might). Whatever. A quiet but public sob in a waiting room is embarrassing, but cost/benefit analysis says pack the Kleenex if it means an earlier follow-up appointment  or an extension on your balance.

Some good places: Planned Parenthood, amazing, can’t say enough. Sliding scale is fair, with a compassionate and invested staff. Bellevue’s clinics can be cheap as shit for the uninsured, if you’re willing to wait- I’m talking ‘2 months for appointment, 4 hours till you’re seen’ kinda waits. Coney Island Hospital has affordable testing.

2. Keep your receipts.

Yes, that bill DOES say $881.00. Top o’ the mornin’, credit card application!

In NYS, if your out-of-pocket medical expenses exceed 7.5% of your income, the rest is deductible. There’s more math, but that’s why there’s H&R Block tax-estimate tools online. Point is, if you get sick and you spend money on anything- testing, appointments, procedures, prescriptions, even a foam roller from Target ($34.95)- hold onto the receipts. Make a spreadsheet as you go and divide expenses into categories for ease at tax time. Simply laugh at the total come March, because crying won’t pay your credit card minimum. SPEAKING of…

3. Pay your credit card minimum
That’s just good sense. And remember that certain institutions can be talked down when it comes to penalty interest. Except Chase. Chase is a real motherfucker.

4. Negotiate, dude
When you’re sick and broke, you got nothing but your dignity. But don’t bother with that, cause you also got rent. Call the lab’s billing/doctor’s accounting department and ask about financial aid. Get a payment plan. Don’t ignore bills, because that makes rheumatologists and your mailman mad. Grovel. Remember the crying? It works on the phone too! There’s always a chance your bloodwork can be brought down if you ask nicely. Times is tough, yo, and the women in Billing know that.

5. Ridiculous coupons, both laminated and not
You know those commercials you see for Rx discount cards? The ones advertised online that just need to be printed out and seem too good to be true? Well, they’re real. And they are fucking awesome. For the uninsured, and maybe soon for the blissfully insured (lookin’ at you Arizona, ya nutty bitch), birth control can be expensive and hard to access. With a discount card, you can get 20% off Nuvaring. Rite Aid and Duane Reade have ‘flex rewards cards’, through which you can get daily meds like generic Synthroid for $8.99.

Check out sites like You might feel like an idiot handing a flimsy print-out to a pharmacist, but it’s worth it when you could save up to 60% on a Z-pack for surprise strep throat.

6. Zinc
Seriously. Take your zinc.  Christoph, my buddy from Munich, introduced me to it during Oktoberfest.  Feverish after three days of no sleep and an IV of red meat and Augustiner Bräu, we sprang back to life like Tinkerbell (It doesn’t do shit-all for Lyme Disease, but it might keep you out of waiting rooms)!

And by the way, I’m getting audited for that tax return! Apparently the IRS would rather fuck around with average folk and their Hefty Bag of bills than waste time with trivialities like GOP lobbyists with suspicious offshore accounts.  Obama. Buddy.  Please keep pushing for uninsured BrokeAsses like us.

Photo by Me

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Nadine Friedman - Vice President of Snark

Nadine Friedman - Vice President of Snark

Nadine is a writer and photographer... so she is a bartender. Her focus is on compelling social issues, with a background directing award-winning, politically relevant theatre ( that's how you spell it when you win awards). She lives in Brooklyn, where its ok to yell at inanimate objects in the bike lane, practice one's headstand with faux modesty in public parks, pay $70 for a three foot Christmas tree and do juice diets under the pretense that it's for detox and not rapid weight loss. She loves her boyfriend, her tweezers, Amtrak and Fage yogurt.


  1. Angie
    April 16, 2012 at 10:36 am

    As for bills, if you say “I am going to pay you $25.00 a month” and they say “no:, your next reply should be “I’m going to send you a check you can do with it what you want.” I sent, they cashed, all is right with the world including my credit. In other words send what you can and on time, if you don’t they will send you to collections and that is when the calls start. You have more power then you think.

  2. Enrique Grijalva - Mr. Minimum Wage
    April 16, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    This crying thing you speak of, sounds like a a great weapon to add to the arsenal.

  3. Darren
    April 17, 2012 at 4:50 am

    You’re missing a few awesome clinics that are sliding scale. The 3 Ryan Center Clinics (testing sued to be free…may still be) in Manhattan, and the awesome Callen Lorde clinic in Chelsea. These places have DENTAL TOO!! Don’t forget about the STD clinic in Chelsea as well….it’s free and it is care. Always bring proof of income as written about here BUT if you have a few “low earning” consecutive weeks, bring those in. They will use them as an average which will lower your sliding scale rate.

  4. Nadine Friedman - Vice President of Snark
    April 18, 2012 at 11:10 am

    Darren- good call on Ryan. Had some lousy experiences at CL so can’t really endorse it myself.

  5. Eden Foutz
    June 22, 2015 at 1:12 pm

    Informative article. Even with Obamacare I can’t afford to visit the Doc too regularly. If you’re willing to play phone jockey, a person can find clinics to get blood tests, and get low cost vaccinations (looking at you Dtap!)
    Walgreens has a discount pharmaceutical “club”. It’s 20$ a year and you can save up to 75% on generics. Also PP IS awesome! When you’re not broke anymore remember to throw a donation their way.