Expat Exchange - Expat Healthcare & Health Insurance San José, Costa Rica
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Expat Healthcare & Health Insurance San José, Costa Rica in San José, Costa Rica

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An expat in San Jose, Costa Rica offers an incredibly insightful report about public and private hospitals, doctors in Costa Rica and the costs of prescription medicine.

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Expat Healthcare Advice for San José

If you're a resident you pretty much have to enroll in the Caja, the public health system, and if you aren't, you can't. So there's that. Whether or not you enroll in the Caja, if you have the funds, private insurance is nice. INS, the state insurance company, sells a pretty good policy for not too much money, and (ahem) it's darn near customary not to mention pre-existing conditions on the application. After a year or so INS doesn't care, and it does pay. Blue Cross and others have now entered the market, but I doubt they're as lax as INS. Of course, you can always pay out-of-pocket for private at prices about a third of US prices, but even a third adds up. Me, I'm only in the Caja now, since I let my INS policy lapse, but that's because I'm poor. People of some affluence usually do both--private for ease and comfort, public as a backup. Oh, in the Caja plan on speaking Spanish. Most Caja docs will know a little English and a few will be fluent, but the system operates in Spanish and you can't count on anyone speaking English. In the private system almost everybody speaks English.

Emergency Medical Care in San José

I'm about 2 miles from my assigned public hospital, Calderon Guardia, and roughly the same distance from two private hospitals, Catholica and Clinica Biblica. For an emergency I would go (and have gone) to the public hospital. It has everything 24/7, and there's no payment expected for admission to the ER. The private hospitals don't necessarily have the right specialists on site and sometimes want cash (in the thousands of dollars) up front to be admitted, even in an emergency. I knew someone who died from a heart attack, probably because she went to a private hospital first and didn't have $20,000 cash on her. At the public hospital, the quality of care is ultimately good on what counts--the docs save lives and patch people up--but it's a real zoo. Patients, maybe you, line the halls since ward space is limited, and yes wards are as good as it gets. Don't expect semi-private rooms, much less TVs, telephones, or internet access. It's like a MASH hospital, just larger, but if you need the ER, it will take care of you. You'll just be glad to get out as soon as you can, and vow to go private if it's not a real emergency.

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Quality of Healthcare in Surrounding Area

If you go private (and either pay through insurance or out of pocket), specialists are easy. They're everywhere and fast, friendly appointments are normal. If you're in the public system, specialists are often where the system breaks down the most. Everybody is assigned to a local clinic, and these are fine, but most local clinics don't have specialists. To see a specialist you're sent elsewhere, and this can take multiple visits simply to make an appointment (you actually need appointments to make appointments) and then when you finally get an appointment, it can be up to a year later. I've also had the clerk lose my file and tell me I needed to start all over again, although in fairness I once saw a specialist on the same day I was sent. Anyway, seeing specialists is often the weakest link in the public health system chain, and many locals just pay private at this point. But sometimes seeing a specialist in the public system is easy. It's a crap shoot.

Prescription Medicines

The public system dispenses generic medicines free, and getting them is easy. But on the advice of a private doc, I pay retail for a name brand pill too. It costs me about a third or less the cost in the US. No prescriptions are necessary for most meds, and even when they are, you can sometimes sweet talk your way into buying them in a drug store without a prescription. Probably the cheapest drug store is La Bomba, and it won't budge on selling meds it's not supposed to, but most meds that require a prescription in the US don't need one here. For meds that the drug stores really aren't supposed to sell without prescriptions, I go to a more full service drug store and pay a little more. Specifically, I keep a supply of antibiotics on hand that by law need a prescription but I buy without one. Also, just in the way the system works, I know a drug store that sells the morning after pill, even though it's really not suppose to in a Catholic country.

Expat Health Insurance in Costa Rica

I was paying around $100 a month for my INS policy, but crossed into the next age bracket plus filed a few claims and my premium doubled. It was still a good deal, but too much for me. The Caja tax is around $100 a month for a pensionado, unfortunately much higher for rentistas. It's set by your income, and most expats just pay according to the income requirements of their residency type. Caja services, including generic prescription meds, are 100% covered, so you never pay more than your monthly tax. Private docs are realistically $80 a visit. You hear of lower prices, but if you go to a specialist (including an internist) plan on $80. As a rule of thumb, pretty much everything else is around 1/3 the price it is in the US.

Quality of Healthcare Compared to Home

[  ] Better
[  ] Somewhat Better
[  ] Same
[x] Somewhat Worse
[  ] Worse

Availability of Medical Care Compared to Home

[  ] Better
[x] Somewhat Better
[  ] Same
[  ] Somewhat Worse
[  ] Worse

Primary Method of Payment for Medical Care

[  ] International Health Insurance
[  ] Insurance Purchased in the Country I Live Abroad In
[  ] Out of Pocket
[x] Social Program (Medicare, Nationalized Health Insurance or Similar)
[  ] Other

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