If you are an American who is lucky enough to have health insurance, you almost certainly have free medical care coming your way.
Several annual and semi-annual services are available to you with no copay—and you have absolutely no reason not to use them. Technically, you have already bought them, as their cost is built into the premiums you’ve already paid. And your body will thank you for it! Even if you feel perfectly healthy, establishing a baseline of health will help your medical professionals detect problems early.
Pro-tip: don’t wait until the end of the year to do all this stuff! Every medical office I’ve ever been to is slammed during November and December as everyone tries to use up their benefits. Schedule it now to avoid the crush.
Here’s what you should be doing every year.
Free medical care checklist #1: Annual physical
I just had mine this week. It took less than an hour, and I walked out with a better understanding of my current overall health.
You can get a refresh on any medications you need. And if your insurance charges you extra to see specialists without a referral, an annual physical is a great time to troll your GP for those.
There are a lot of reasons not to go see the doctor, like fear of needles (Piggy’s case) or speculums (my case). But no blood was drawn—a single finger-stick was enough to give me a print-out of my glucose, cholesterol, and triglycerides. Best of all, pelvic exams are (for me) no longer a yearly necessity! Thank you, merciful Kapo, Hawaiian fertility goddess! I hope one day you see fit to bless me with the detachable vagina your prophetess Wanda Sykes has spoken of.
In general, if there’s any medical procedure holding you back from going to see any doctor, just decline it. Your body is your own! No doctor can’t perform any procedure on you without your consent. They may scold you or try to change your mind, but it’s far better to exasperate them with select refusals than to never see them in the first place.
Make sure it’s really a physical
In the age of Obamacare, all preventative care in the United States should come at no cost to you. However, some insurance companies are sticklers to the terms of a “physical.”
For example, if you ask your doctor questions about your regular medications, or existing health issues, your insurance company may decide the visit was a consultation rather than a physical, and charge you a co-pay.
If cost is a concern, talk to your doctor up-front. “I cannot afford a co-pay, so please keep our discussion topics to what you consider to be within the parameters of an annual physical examination.” If they don’t listen, find another doctor because they’re kind-of being a dick IMO.
Free medical care checklist #2: Teeth cleaning and X-rays
My dental plan offers two cleanings per year plus X-rays. Yours may be a bit different, so check first to see what’s supported and what’s not. If your dentist is good, they can alert you to problem areas before cavities form, and you can pay special attention to them while brushing to stave off a more expensive (and uncomfortable) fix.
And actually, I kinda have a mini-rant about this…
Be picky about your dentist
Until I found a truly gentle and attentive dentist, I did not realize how manhandled I’d been in the past. When I marveled at how I barely felt the oral shot he’d just given me, he sighed. “Nothing I’m doing should hurt,” he told me. “If it does, it means that dentist doesn’t prioritize comfort and isn’t invested in making sure you come back.”
Since then, I’ve come to recognize that indifference to comfort is one of three red flags that you have a bad dentist.
The other two? Shame. For years, dentists scolded me for not brushing well enough. It made me sooooo self-conscious. I smiled without showing my teeth for years, and scrubbed them furiously when I brushed, trying to do better. Later, my awesome dentist explained that most of my dental issues stemmed from genetically poor enamel, which is totally outside my control. By scrubbing hard, all I was doing was causing lasting harm to my gums. So thanks, shitty dentists! Shame made my mouth worse, not better!
The third is excessive procedures. There are tons of scammy dentists eager to bill your (or your insurance company) for thousands of dollars for unnecessary fillings and “deep cleanings.” But fillings shouldn’t be given lightly, as they weaken the entire structure of the tooth. If I have a minor cavity that’s causing no pain, my awesome dentist takes a “watch and wait” approach. He cares more about my mouth’s integrity than lining his pockets.
That dentist has been my service provider for an incredible 18 years. I’ve since moved away from the city where his office is located. But I super don’t care. I take an hour-long train ride to get to him. It’s totally worth it.
Free medical care checklist #3: Eye exams and new lenses
If you need glasses or contacts, go for an annual eye exam and ask your optometrist office to assist you in figuring out what your insurance will reimburse you for. I get yearly lens allowances (for glasses or contacts) and an every-other-year credit towards glasses frames. That’s a pretty common setup.
If I haven’t gotten around to using it up by December, I call my optometrist and ask her to order me as many contact lenses as I still have an allowance for.
Also, if you wear glasses, don’t neglect to have them repaired and serviced as-needed. I had a pair I loved for ten months… until they were crushed in a tragic sex accident. My sheepish husband took them in to see if anything could be done. It turns out that particular line comes under a “no questions asked” one-year warranty. I had a brand new pair by the end of the week!
(Also, FYI, if your partner wears a very strong prescription, and you lovingly take off her glasses while making out, make sure you set them on the bedside table! —NOT just somewhere else on the bed! She will invariably have a great physical comedy routine lined up where she pretends to keep “missing” your penis during oral sex. But because she’s very funny and totally committed to the bit, she will dive completely past your body, landing on the glasses she couldn’t see, because she assumed you put them on the bedside table like a sane person.)
Free medical care checklist #4: Routine and seasonal vaccinations
Routine vaccines for adults
Every time you vaccinate yourself to deter a preventable disease, an angel DOESN’T get its wings.
You know, because fewer people will die? Get it?
Here’s what most adults need…
COVID-19 vaccine and booster
Seasonal flu shot every year to prevent influenza
Tdap booster every 10 years to prevent tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis
HPV vaccine before age 26 to prevent genital warts and cancers
And you may need more if you’re…
The easiest time to get routine vaccines and boosters is when you’re at your annual physical. Your doctor will be able to advise on your vaccinations and their schedule.
If you don’t usually bother getting seasonal immunizations, here’s a story for you.
Piggy and I have a close friend who almost died from the common flu.
They were only in their twenties, and an extraordinarily fit marathon runner. On a random late winter day, they felt a little under the weather. Within 48 hours they were unconscious on a ventilator in the ICU.
Luckily, they survived. But they needed physical therapy to learn how to breathe on their own again. And they went through a ton of physical and mental trauma, including missing their own wedding. I credit their survival to their amazing medical team, their wise decision to go to the hospital early, and their existing crazy-high level of fitness. My out-of-shape ass would’ve been dead! I would not have been alone; 36,000 Americans die of the flu every year.
The total cost of our friend’s fight with the common flu came to $1.1 million. Luckily, they were newly covered under Obamacare. I don’t believe they ended up paying a cent. Have I mentioned health insurance is pretty worth-it?
It’s true that seasonal immunizations (like the flu shot) don’t always have a great success rate. It’s an illness with many rapidly-mutating strains. The vaccine makers have to try to predict which strain is the biggest threat, yielding mixed results.
But anything that cuts your odds of getting seriously sick is worth it—particularly if it’s free.
Here’s more of our exciting thoughts on staying healthy:
Our Master List of 100% Free Mental Health Self-Care Tactics
Ask the Bitches: “How Do I Protect My Own Mental Health While Still Helping Others?”
Run With Me if You Want to Save: How Exercising Will Save You Money
I Think I Need To Go the Emergency Room?
Financial Lessons Learned from a Night in the ER
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So there it is! Your free medical care checklist. Their cost is built into your insurance premiums, so you’ve essentially already paid for them. So there’s no excuse not to get these four routine procedures every single year.
Save it for later so you don’t forget!
A version of this article was originally published on September 5, 2016.