In tough times charity care an option in Merced

For people, losing a job during the bleak economy also means losing their health insurance. With medical costs mushrooming out of sight, many of those people end up using a hospital emergency room when they get really sick. That burdens both themselves and the health care system. But there is help for those people.

At Mercy Medical Center Merced, the hospital's commitment to charity care allows it to give free care to those who qualify for it.

At the hospital's clinics -- Family Care, Kid's Care and General Medicine -- there are three categories for self-pay patients, according to Lori Graver, director of patient financial services.

"It's a sliding scale, depending on the people's income," Graver said. To get a 100 percent discount, or not pay anything for care, a person or family must make no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

"For a family of four that makes under $44,100 a year, the care would be free," Graver said.

For people who make more money, but who have no health insurance, there are reduced fees at the clinics. For example, a family of four that has a yearly income of $77,175 or less would make co-pays of only $30. For people who make 350 to 500 percent of the federal poverty level, the cost is $60 a visit. Last year, the three clinics saw more than 65,000 patients. Only 1 percent of those patients had private insurance.

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