How to afford medical expenses (on a low income or Centrelink)

Do you struggle to afford medical care while living on Centrelink or a low income?

Read on to learn how to cover some major medical expenses, afford the help you need and what free help is available for those on Centrelink or low incomes. Disclosure, there are a couple of affiliate links in this post for things I use. Check out my full disclosure here.

In May 2017, I had to go to the hospital. My pain levels hit a 9 and 10 (pain more intense than childbirth and at 10 you black out from pain). I lost feeling in my legs, my lower back felt like the muscles were crushing my spine again, I could not breathe and it was terrifying. I spent most of 2015 like this and got no answers then. I saw a neurologist was advised my condition was permanent. I was sent for more tests, physio, acupuncture and other treatments. If I had to pay for all of that out of my own pocket it would have been close to $3,000. There are ways around paying for it all though, which I’ll share in a minute.

Medical treatment is expensive. The ambulance bill alone was $1,200 then the medication, crutches, other tests, more treatment and changes to my home. It added up quickly.

In the past few years I have needed:

5 surgeries
 (and will have an annual surgery for the rest of my life)
Physiotherapy
A chiropractor
Other treatments such as regular doctors visits, medications, specialists such as a neurosurgeon, gynaecologist and I tried naturopaths, Bowen therapy, basically anything anyone suggested, I did. 

My daughters required speech therapy, counselling, hospitalisation at one point and other treatments as well.

I know how expensive medical treatments can be and I know how debilitating disabilities can be which prevent your ability to earn to afford the medical treatments. It is a vicious cycle.

I’ll cover the main things I have experience with here from ambulance trips to glasses. I

1. NDIS

First and foremost, check your eligibility for help from the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Many things such as support people, one off items like wheelchairs, connections and more are available and a plan will be tailored to you if you are eligible. Find out more about NDIS here.

2. Ambulance

If you are on a pension the ambulance is covered. You will likely still be sent a bill, you call and it gets sorted. Do not stress. 

If you can afford private health insurance or choose to have private health insurance make sure your policy includes ambulance cover. You will be sent the bill and you process it with your insurer so you won’t pay but you need to do it quickly.

Alternatively, you can get ambulance only cover for under $100 a year for a family or under $50 a year for singles. This alone can save thousands!

3. Dental care

If you have kids and get Family Tax Benefit A or a relevant payment, you are eligible for some dental treatments for them up to $1,000. You can find out more here.

For yourself, there is some public dental help available, which varies state from to state. Find more information here.

Some private health funds cover some dental care, in my experience, it doesn’t cover much and isn’t really worth it. if you have private health insurance with extras, find out what you are entitled to. If it’s not worth it, compare and see how much you can drop your premium by getting rid of dental.

Prevention is the best option with dental costs.

These are tips from my dentist:
– Get an electric toothbrush (they often go on sale for half price).
– Use it for the full 2 minutes (they have a timer).
– Floss properly by cupping your teeth with the string and flossing.
– Use a mouthwash if you want but at the least rinse with water to get the rest of what you flossed from your teeth out of your mouth. Or put sage in water and leave it for a few hours then rinse with that water.
– Do not wash your teeth right after soft drinks or sugary drinks as this can cause more damage. – 

Limit the sugary, unhealthy foods you consume.
– Drink more water and make sure you eat well as this also helps your teeth.
– 

If you need urgent dental care such as a filling, root canal etc you can ring to get approximate quotes, see if there are dentists who offer discounts for people on Centrelink or low incomes. Ask if they have ‘cheaper times’ (e.g. some offer a reduced rate on Mondays and Tuesdays, mainly for seniors. I had one in Western Sydney you worked mainly nights, but he offered a discount for daytime appointments).
– 

If you need x-rays and have the time, request a referral to a bulk billing place, go get them done, then come back to the dentist. Not all dentists do this, but it can save money.

Oil pulling is something else some people swear by. I found it did help a little to ease pain, reduce swelling and enabled me to save to pay for the dental treatment I needed years ago. I used coconut or sweet almond oil. However, it’s controversial, so I’d recommend getting professional treatment as soon as you can.

4. Doctors visits

Look for a doctor who will bulk bill. Not many do anymore, or some only bulk bill on certain days. Ask around. If you have chronic conditions, some doctors may bulk bill some of your appointments for you.
Some tests can be bulk billed, check with your doctor or the lab if needed. Some other tests have a reduced fee when you go back for results too. Find out more here.

5. Specialists

While it might seem like they have a licence to print money and charge like a wounded bull, they are necessary. If you are referred to a specialist, follow these tips to reduce the costs.

1. Go on the public waiting list as soon as possible

But be aware you may wait years depending on where you live, what treatment you need etc. When my daughters’ needed speech therapy it was a 2.5 year wait. I paid for private treatment for them and 3 years later I got a call to ask if I still wanted to be on the waitlist with no idea of when I’d be able to get in still. That was Sydney. The wait list in Canberra was 6 months. Huge difference!

2. If you have to go private, shop around and ask for a discount

Most do not bulk bill or offer options unless you are a long-term client. I found once I outlined my situation in 2015 (long-term paralysis, surgeries, single mother etc.) many waved or reduced their fees. The anaesthetists dropped their fees from $900 to $0! Call before the surgery and ask.

3. Check extra payments or benefits you may be entitled to

With the speech therapy example, because my daughters had other specialists they needed to see as well, I was eligible for carers allowance for them which was just over $100 a fortnight then, and now $124.70 plus you might be eligible for 2 other payments at tax time ($1,000 and $600) which can help.

4. Go on a plan

For physiotherapy and similar treatments, your GP might be able to put you on a plan which provides you with a limited amount of treatments either bulk billed or at a reduced rate. Ask them. I know of plans for physiotherapy, speech therapy and psychology, but there are probably more!

5. For psychology and ATAPS

I accessed ATAPS in 2013. It cannot be used with the Medicare option, but it has a lot of benefits. Find out more here.

6. Glasses and contacts

I wear glasses and used to spend hundreds each time I needed to replace my glasses. Now I purchase mine from either Zenni Optical (get $5 off with this link) or Eye Buy Direct (get $10 off your first purchase with this link). I have done this for 7 years, had the prescription glasses checked by an optometrist and they were impressed. 
I am almost positive Zenni Optical is used by Specsavers. Their frames for $99 or two for one deals etc are all in the Zenni range. Zenni has prescription glasses from $6.95 plus postage. You can upload a photo of yourself to get an idea of how you will look or try them on in Specsavers then buy online instead.

What you need to do:

– Get your eyes tested.
– Try on different styles to see what suits your face.
– Ask for the prescription including your PD or pupillary distance. (I have heard some places, especially private ones do not give them to you, so ask before you get tested).
– Jump onto Zenni, upload an image of your face, set the little crosses to your pupils then go through and ‘try’ glasses on that you like. Pick the one you want to order, put your prescription details in and save those details in there to refer to later if you need new ones. Order and wait a few weeks.

I found the quality to be decent. I am more likely to lose my glasses than I am to have them break. In 7 years I have only had 1 pair break and they were not treated well by me and still lasted a few years.

7. Medication

Whether you need medication rarely, have a prescription for the pill or need a bunch of medications each month, there are ways to reduce the expense.

PBS

Some medications come under the PBS and if you have a health care card (or pension card) you get these medications for a heavily reduced fee. This does not cover ALL medications though, and the cost of essential medications can be difficult for many. 

Ask for the generic brand. There generally isn’t a difference except for the packaging. Unless your doctor is explicit about you needing the brand name, ask if generic is ok then get the cheaper option from your pharmacist.

Join reward clubs

Many pharmacies have loyalty programs you can join and collect points whenever you make a purchase which can be redeemed for money off future purchases. Find a list of VIP and loyalty programs here.

Keep track of it

Make sure you get your scripts before they expire so you needn’t pay for an extra appointment or script from the doctor. Take your medication as instructed or it won’t be as effective.




8. Educate yourself

Learn about your conditions, what helps and what makes it worse. Keep a diary to make notes for yourself as well. 

Use apps to track everything. For example, there are health apps to track everything you do, put in your symptoms when you have them etc. This helps doctors when you have to get treatment as you have a record and specific dates for your issues.

For some conditions, certain foods will cause issues. For other conditions, too much or too little movement can impact. Get to know your body, your conditions and what works for you.

For apps, I have the health app on my iPhone but also downloaded an app for periods (I have PCOS so this has helped know when things are wrong). I also have the Medicare app, my doctor has an app I use to book easily and I’ve used apps like My Fitness Pal to track everything.

9. Watch what you eat

Alcohol, sugar, high acid food and most processed foods can aggravate many conditions, especially ones that have chronic pain involved. 

Do some research to find out which foods help and which foods make your condition worse.



10. Stay hydrated

We underestimate the value of water and how it helps our bodies, helps us heal and reduces many issues. Our bodies are mainly water, if we don’t drink enough it cannot function properly. Drink at least 2 to 3 Litres a day. I like to keep bottles of water in the fridge and sip throughout the day.

11. Try other options

For starters, most people go to the doctor for sniffles and coughs which are viruses and they expect antibiotics. Most of the time the doctor can’t give you anything and the appointment is a waste of money. 

Talk to your pharmacist and they can offer some suggestions or tell you if you need to see a doctor.

Call the health line on 1800 022 222 before going to your GP or the hospital, they can often advise what you should do.

Check out medical co-ops which have a monthly or annual fee and provide medical care. A list of options can be found here.

Leave emergency or 000 for ACTUAL emergencies. I cannot stress this enough. Rarely, if ever, have I called 000. Even when blacking out from the pain I didn’t want to but was advised to and I ended up with breathing issues, requiring injections and could not leave my home without paramedics, so it was the right call. However, if you are not dying, your condition is not life threatening or it is not a true emergency, then do not call 000!!! Use the health line, your GP or pharmacist. People die because emergency services are tied up dealing with non-emergencies. 

How do you get the money to pay for medical treatment?

If you have been struck down by illness or injury, the medical bills are one problem, the inability to work and pay for everything in life is usually another which adds to the stress making it next to impossible to get better.

1. Check if you are eligible for Centrelink benefits

If you are going to be off work for a while, change your income status so your family tax benefit, rent assistance and other payments adjust.
Check what else you might be eligible for. Disability is notoriously hard to get and it might not be the right benefit for your situation, but you might be able to get Newstart with a medical exemption if you are partnered, they might be eligible for carers payment and allowance. Check this part of the Centrelink website to see if there are any one-off payments or assistance available to you.

2. Private health insurance

I paid for private health insurance as soon as I became single purely because I wanted the peace of mind that if anything happened or we needed immediate treatment, I would get it. It has paid for itself plus provided me numerous benefits where the staff specifically said if I was a public patient it would not be happening.

One example of that is we ended up in emergency for my youngest daughter. They were reluctant to take us in despite my GP and the health line both saying she needed to be there. They took me because I was a private patient. Once inside, after various tests, the doctor on call asked if I felt I could look after her in her condition at home. I knew there was something extremely wrong and he was dismissing me. I said no, I am a single mum and we cannot go home with her in this condition. They admitted us and he told me it was because I had private health insurance.

Next, my phone went flat and I didn’t know the phone numbers to call anyone to get my other daughter. I was told, if we were not private patients they would have called children’s services and taken my eldest until someone could be contacted. Instead, as we were private and had a private room, they brought in a recliner and we had a bench, so all 3 of us slept there.

In the morning I was able to get hold of my family who picked up my eldest. A paediatrician came and my daughters’ condition was so severe she was kept in hospital for 3 days and advised to remain home from school for another 2 weeks with follow up appointments once we were discharged. They were mortified I was going to be sent home the night before and the follow up with our private paediatrician confirmed this.

It sucks, but sometimes, you get further with private health insurance than you do public. If we had been sent home, I hate to think what could have happened to my daughter.

If you already need the assistance, private health insurance probably isn’t going to help. If you have it, check what you can claim and what assistance you can get. Compare to ensure you are on the best deal and that you are covered for what you need. Many private health insurance extras aren’t worth it. Hospital or ambulance can be, especially if you have medical issues or are not eligible for a pension/low income card.

3. Find alternative ways to make money

A job is not the only way to make money. If you have a condition like I did, where some days the pain is so excruciating you cannot do anything, or where you are paralysed or mental conditions where some days getting out of bed is a struggle, your earning potential is severely limited and most people will not understand. I do and there are options. Aside from Centrelink benefits, it can be difficult to find other ways to make money. I have 51 ways to make money from home and 43 ways for single mums to make money which might help.

You can also try options like:
Online surveys – the best ones I have used are here.
Become a freelance writer (tips on how to do that here) or a virtual assistant (tips on that here).
Buy stuff to resell (I made almost $9,000 one month doing that).
Mystery shopping (tips in this article) or market research (tips here) are two options which provide money occasionally.

How do you afford medical care when living on Centrelink?

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