Get Peace of Mind for $100 a Month in Uruguay

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Posted by The Savvy Retiree on November 7, 2020 in Live Better

One of the hardest things about being a freelancer in the U.S. is the lack of affordable healthcare. Health insurance policies tend to be prohibitively expensive on the front end, come with steep deductibles, and harbor many exclusions or limited networks that make actually accessing healthcare difficult. So even when you have insurance, one accident or health crisis can wipe out your savings in an instant.

I have hereditary degenerative disc disease. Before I moved to Uruguay, the illness had progressed so much that I had lost two inches in height. The nerves at the base of my spine, called the cauda equine or “horse’s tail,” had been compressed so badly that I had little feeling in my left leg and I was often in excruciating pain. 

X-rays and MRIs showed that the discs in my back were all but non-existent, and I was awaiting a date to have corrective surgery. However, when I was forced to change doctors, I was left bedridden as the new physician refused to even look at my scans or order new ones. He barely spoke to me, re-diagnosed me as being hysterical over the “natural aging process,” and canceled my medications.

At that point, my family and I had already booked our tickets to Uruguay. So, despite being in great discomfort, I managed to load my family and belongings into a van, drive to Miami, and board the plane. We landed in Uruguay, I collapsed into bed, and was unable to get back up.

Accessible Healthcare

When our new neighbors came over to welcome us, one immediately called a doctor she knew, and asked if he could do a cash consult. I braced myself to get up and call a taxi, but they looked astonished. “No, he comes here!”

When the doctor arrived, he picked up my laptop, looked carefully at the MRI of my spine, and then stared at me. “You have cauda equina. You know this? The tail of the horse? The pain must be unbelievable!”

The doctor prescribed me oral painkillers, gave me advice on how to sign up for health insurance in Uruguay, and presented his bill: $100. The medication gave me enough relief that I could get around, and in a rare turn of events, the cauda equina improved in time without surgical intervention. Moreover, because I live in Uruguay, I now know that if I do require surgery, I’ll be able to access the care I need and it won’t ruin me financially.

My family and I joined ASSE, the country’s public healthcare system. The initial cost for an all-inclusive health plan was just $100 per person, per month. Even better, this can fall when you achieve residency.

If we wanted, we could also have obtained membership in one of the many private mutualistas, under which you enter into a membership agreement directly with a hospital that provides all your medical services. Hospitals that offer mutualistas provide care to members for less than $100 per month plus a small copay when you visit a doctor or get a test.

Outstanding Care

Every time we’ve needed to access healthcare in Uruguay, whether for my son’s agonizing kidney stone or my daughter’s syncope episode, our experience has been stellar. My wife had a heart scare last year, which sent us to the emergency room. She also received excellent care and we came away feeling reassured. 

At several ER visits, I’ve noticed posters in reception letting patients know that their preferred name and pronouns would be used at all times. When my daughter needed birth control, it was available over the counter at the pharmacy, and they slipped a plan B flyer into her bag with the receipt. Amazing: medical care without judgment or restrictions.

Like any country with subsidized healthcare, there can be a few bottlenecks. For certain tests and procedures, wait times can be as long as a few weeks to a few months. However, you can pay a reasonable out-of-pocket fee to get access to these services more quickly. 

For older retirees, several of the mutualistas do make it harder to join if you are over 65. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t get coverage, just that you might not be able to get a plan with your preferred hospital. And you can always join ASSE.

Overall, healthcare in Uruguay has been refreshing. When someone gets sick here, they don’t have to weigh their health against the cost of seeking care. The peace of mind you derive from having access to affordable, high-quality medical care is priceless and one of the major benefits of living and working in Uruguay.

By Grace Alexander