"I Can't Afford That!": Dilemmas in the Care of the Uninsured and Underinsured

J Gen Intern Med. 2001 Jun;16(6):412-8. doi: 10.1046/j.1525-1497.2001.016006412.x.


When patients lack sufficient health care insurance, financial matters become integrally intertwined with biomedical considerations in the process of clinical decision making. With a growing medically indigent population, clinicians may be compelled to bend billing or reimbursement rules, lower standards, or turn patients away when they cannot afford the costs of care. This article focuses on 3 types of dilemmas that clinicians face when patients cannot pay for needed medical services: (1) whether to refer the individual to a safety net provider, such as a public clinic; (2) whether to forgo indicated tests and therapies because of cost; and (3) whether to reduce fees by fee waivers or other adjustments in billing. Clinicians' responses to these dilemmas impact on quality of care, continuity, safety net providers, and the liability risk of committing billing violations or offering nonstandard care. Caring for the underinsured in the current health care climate requires an understanding of billing regulations, a commitment to informed consent, and a beneficent approach to finding individualized solutions to each patient care/financial dilemma. To effect change, however, physicians must address issues of social justice outside of the office through political and social activism.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cost Control
  • Delivery of Health Care / economics*
  • Ethics, Medical
  • Fees, Medical
  • Humans
  • Medical Indigency / economics*
  • Medically Uninsured*