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The US Healthcare System

To all international students studying in the United States, the US health care system might seem impossibly complicated and confusing. This is because the US health care system is impossibly complicated and confusing; most US citizens don't even fully understand it. The following is a short guide to help you to better understand the US health care system, so you will be fully prepared for your stay in the United States.

Quality of US Health Care

The United States boasts the greatest medical expertise and the finest clinics in the world. If you are sick or injured during your studies in the US and you are treated in a US hospital, you can be certain that you are receiving some of the finest care in the world.

The US Spends Money On Health Care

The US spends far more on health each year than most countries; in 2009, the US spent 17.4 per cent of GDP on health, far more than the “rich country average of 9.6 per cent (OECD).” For reference, the next highest spender was Holland at 12 percent of its national wealth.

Life Expectancy Evaluated

In spite of this, 40 countries, including nations such as Chile, have a greater life expectancy than the US. America was placed at number 37 on a landmark World Health Organization ranking of health care systems in 2000.

Health Care Bottom Line

One possible explanation for this may be simply that medical care does not affect health and longevity as much as public health measures and lifestyle. Yet in matters such as vaccinations, the US strictly enforces health protection.

Another potential explanation is the absence of a nationally organized health care system in the US. Such systems can be economic for many reasons: supplies can be bought in bulk; wasteful prescribing can be controlled; unnecessary medical interventions can be limited.

The Value of Health Insurance

As long as you have health insurance, this should not affect you as an international student in the US. With health insurance, you will be entitled to the high quality care provided by the US health care system. However, without valid health insurance, you may find that quality health care is not nearly as accessible to you, and you may need to pay colossal medical fees should you become ill or injured.

Health Insurance in the US

Health care in the US is provided by private hospitals and clinics. Most US citizens have medical insurance, which is generally provided by the individual’s employer and extends to his or her immediate family. Some insurance plans are provided by the federal or state governments, labor unions, or individuals. As health care costs have mounted in recent years, employers have increasingly asked employees to contribute. About half of all Americans with private health insurance are covered by self-insured plans, and each of these plans has its own plan design.

After retirement, US citizens can get aid through the Medicare program. Families and individuals with low income can receive aid through Medicaid.

Coverage provided by different health insurance plans varies dramatically. They may or may not include large or small deductibles, co-pays, or co-insurance; beneficiaries may pay a large, small, or no part of their health insurance premiums; some plans cover dependents, others do not.

Health Insurance for Foreigners

Just as US citizens are not required by law to have health insurance, neither are F-1 and F-2 visa holders staying in the US (although your school can require you to have it to enroll in classes). Because health care costs in the US are so expensive, though, some visas like the J-1 and J-2 do require a minimum level of health insurance. Either way, while you as an international student may not think you need health insurance to study in the US, it is highly recommended that you purchase it and in some cases your school or government may require it.

If you become ill or injured while you are staying in the US and you do not have the appropriate insurance, you run the risk of paying colossal medical bills, or even of receiving no health care at all. US hospitals only treat emergency cases without prior payment, and may refuse treatment without evidence of insurance or a deposit. Researchers have found that the average charge for an emergency room visit in the US is approximately $1,233 - 40% higher than the average American pays for rent each month. For this reason, it is highly recommended that you purchase health insurance before leaving for the United States, or soon after your arrival.

International students studying in the US for more than a few months should consider a fully comprehensive international medical insurance plan from a provider with direct experience and understanding of the US health care system.

You should also be aware that not all providers can offer you cover beyond your first year in the US if you are permanently a resident of the United States; after that first year you may have to switch to a US-based insurance company.

Return to our "Insurance Explained" section for more information and help