Navigating Health Care in the U.S.

Health care in the U.S. is complicated, even for U.S. residents. The American health care system is different from many other countries, where the government may pay all or part of an individual’s health care costs. Medical care is very expensive in the U.S., and people are expected to pay for it themselves. Even a simple procedure in the hospital can cost thousands of dollars. There will be separate bills from the hospital, from every doctor who examines the patient, for every laboratory procedure, and for all medicines. Americans purchase health insurance to protect themselves from these high health care costs, and all international students are required to have it. Do not view health insurance as an additional, unnecessary expense. Without it you would have to pay thousands of dollars in medical bills if you had a serious accident or illness that required hospitalization.

Insurance Booklet

It is recommended that you have a copy of the Aetna health insurance booklet available to verify coverage benefits and exclusions.

Talking with doctors

In the U. S. it is customary to ask your doctor questions about your diagnosis and treatment. You may want to have a friend accompany you to a medical appointment in order to help listen and ask questions, assist with translation (if necessary), and provide overall support. Many medical offices and pharmacies in the Orlando area have Spanish speakers on staff and sometimes they can assist speakers of other languages. So do not be afraid to ask if someone there can talk with you in your native language so that you can ask questions and make sure you understand everything they tell you.

Female doctor with patient reviewing chart

Where to Get Medical Care

In the event of an emergency, dial 911.

Walk-In Clinics

For most illnesses and injuries, people go to a walk-in clinic, where an appointment is not necessary. These clinics are staffed by fully qualified doctors and nurses who treat problems such as sore throats, coughs, cold or flu symptoms; eye, ear, or skin infections; nausea and vomiting; sprains and fractures; urinary problems; and body aches and pains. X-rays and other diagnostic procedures are often done on the premises. Walk-in clinics are also known as “urgent care centers,” but they should not be confused with a hospital emergency room.

Hospital Emergency Room

A hospital emergency room is the most expensive place to obtain medical care. Your insurance is likely to pay for it only if you have a serious, life-threatening medical emergency such as a traumatic injury, breathing problems, high fever, serious burns, or if you have an urgent need during hours when walk-in clinics are closed. The waiting time for nonemergency care in a hospital emergency room can be very long, sometimes up to eight hours.


Use an ambulance to get to a hospital only if emergency medical procedures may be needed on the way. For serious but non-life-threatening health problems, use a less expensive form of transportation such as a taxi. Ambulance transportation costs hundreds of dollars. Your insurance will only cover part of the ambulance fee, and even then only if the ambulance was needed for a true medical emergency.

Paying for Health Care

In order to keep the total cost of insurance as low as possible, your insurance is intended to protect you against serious illnesses or injuries that would cost you thousands of dollars for hospital care. Therefore, for each injury or sickness, you are responsible for a portion of every medical bill called a “co-pay” or a “deductible.”

Sometimes you may be expected to pay the entire amount and then submit a claim to the insurance company for reimbursement of the insurance-covered expenses. Be prepared to pay the entire bill any time that you receive medical care or buy prescription medicine. Bring your health insurance ID card with you, because sometimes the medical provider will call the insurance company to verify that you have insurance. Get a detailed statement of your bill before you leave the medical office; you may need this to submit your claim to the insurance company.

Verifying Coverage Benefits

It is also recommended that you have a copy of the Aetna health insurance booklet available to verify coverage benefits and exclusions. You can access an  electronic version at and save it to your desktop or mobile device or print it for reference.