Living in Chile, Part III: Healthcare

For this third part in my series on cost of living in Chile, I address perhaps one of the most hotly contested topics in the U.S. today. One might be surprised to find that most Chilenos feel (nearly) as passionately about their healthcare system as those in the U.S. I’ve encountered numerous who complain loud and long to me about the unfairness inherent in the system, how the rich receive the best care and the poor receive mediocre care.

The first time I heard this complaint, I stopped said person and said, “Wait, but everyone has healthcare?” I then had to explain how healthcare works (or doesn’t, depending on your perspective) in the US. Now it was their turn to be shocked. Many Chilenos seem to believe that the US is mostly perfect, that everyone is rich and happy and that everyone receives the best of everything – including healthcare. They find it difficult to believe that not everyone has healthcare, that the costs for insurance can be so high and that we still have to pay to see the doctor.

All Chileans do have access to healthcare. Chile became one of the first Latin American countries to introduce a national system to healthcare. Each working person earning a wage pays 7% of his or her salary into the national system (FONASA). Private insurance does exist (hence the comment about the rich receiving better care). If a person elects to choose private insurance, they pay the premiums themselves.

My first visit to a clinic here was a welcome surprise. Despite in all other ways (as far as I can tell) being a developed country, I still wasn’t sure what to expect. But walking into a clinic in Viña del Mar felt like walking into any clinic in the US. I found the facilities modern, clean and organized. I found the people professional, helpful and knowledgable. I’m sure this is not everyone’s experience, so I’ll caveat that now – this is only my personal experience!

There is one major difference. I have found that one does not need a referral to see a specialist, and that the idea of a general practitioner (GP) is kind of foreign. Most doctors specialize in something, so when I needed to see a doctor, I was asked what kind of doctor I needed to see. And, I got an appointment with a lung specialist that same morning. Personally, I think this is fantastic. As someone who has consistently shied away from seeing specialists (primarily due to the cost), I was very happy finally to be able to access one. I also did not have to pay for two doctor’s visits, wait for two appointments to open up, or report back to my GP.

When I did visit a lung specialist here to talk about my cough, I received extensive tests to measure and understand my breathing capacity. Unfortunately, I have been visiting different doctors in the US for 20 years about my cough, and the accompanying bronchitis. Most either shrugged their shoulders in ignorance or told me there was nothing wrong with me. I have to admit, it was nice to finally be heard – even if I had to come all the way to Chile to do it.

Then there is the cost. An average doctor visit has cost me CLP$30k-40k (USD$45 – $65), and that’s without insurance. My antibiotics cost less than USD$6. The inhaler and allergy medication cost a bit more, about USD$40 each. But I have no comparison in the US, so do not know if this is actually expensive or not.

If something truly terrible were to happen, I would likely return to the US, if nothing else for the comfort and certainty of speaking English when making major medical decisions. But generally, I find I prefer it here. And I have friends who feel similarly. A couple of American friends came to Chile this year primarily because they were spending in excess of $20,000 annually, just for health insurance – just for him. They found that here, even without insurance, they are spending far less (and having a fantastic time living in Chile!)

Pictures this week include my local clinic, my ankle (from a week ago – on the mend, slowly but surely!) and some great food I had this week. A veggie sandwich and my newest, latest, favorite Chilean culinary creation – Porotos Granados – completely vegan and completely delicious! Summer is coming to a close in Viña; kids have returned to school and the crowds have departed. So I’ll wrap up summer next week talking about some of the fun things to do in Viña on any given evening in summer. Till next time,


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