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Health Care Basics for International Students

aca_piggybank.jpgThe United States healthcare system is among the most complicated in the world, and can be overwhelming to a newcomer.  This article will help you to navigate the complex world of providers, facilities and services.

Your insurance plan

As a University of Washington international student, you are required to purchase an insurance plan known as   the UW International Student Health Insurance Plan (I-SHIP) when you register for classes.  This insurance plan is administered by a company called Lifewise, and you will receive an insurance card in the mail with your identification number and group number.  You may be asked to provide these numbers when you call a doctor's office.  Carry your insurance card with you, as you may need it in order to see a doctor or visit a pharmacy.

Insurance terminology

Each insurance plan is different.  However, all UW international students with I-SHIP have the same plan, which is described here.  This plan does not cover the cost of all available services and medications, and covers some types of providers, visits and prescription drugs more than others. 

Insurance plans in the US have contracts with medical providers.  This means that your plan will cover more if you visit contracted or "in-network" doctors than non-contracted doctors.  For example, I-SHIP will pay more of the cost of going to a provider in the UW system (UW Medical Center, Hall Health, etc.) than elsewhere.  When you need to visit a doctor, be sure to ask whether I-SHIP is "in network" with that provider.

You are responsible for a portion of the cost of your services.  First, your insurance plan has a deductible, or an amount that must be paid by you before your insurance begins to cover the cost of your care.  The deductible does not apply to many services meant to prevent disease.  Second, your insurance plan will require you to pay a portion of your visit and medication costs, known as co-insurance.  This is usually a percentage of the total cost of the visit.  Your insurance may cover 80 percent, in which case you would receive a bill in the mail for the remaining 20 percent.

You may be asked to pay a co-pay (short for co-payment) when you visit the doctor or pick up a prescription medication.  This amount will vary depending on the service or medication.  You can find out more by calling the insurance company or looking at I-SHIP plan benefits

Where do I go if I'm sick or need medicine?

The US healthcare system has many different types of clinics and providers:

  • Emergency rooms (ERs) are for life-threatening health conditions, like heart attacks and strokes. You should not visit an ER for a minor injury or ailment.  ERs are typically located at hospitals.  University of Washington Medical Center has an emergency room.  It is much more expensive to receive care at an ER than through any other type of medical provider. 
  • Urgent care facilities are for non-life-threatening but acute conditions, like broken bones, sprains and cuts that need stitches.  It is more expensive to receive care at at one of these facilities than through a regular doctor.
  • Family, primary care or internal medicine clinics offer preventive care and treatment of non-urgent medical conditions.  Hall Health Center at UW offers both primary care and family medicine.  For more information about different types of medical providers, check out What Kind of Provider Will I See at Hall Health?  Health insurance typically provides a good amount of coverage for services through these types of doctors.
  • You may receive a referral to a specialist (i.e., obstetricians, gynecologists, urologists, etc.) if you have a medical condition that requires greater expertise than a primary care of family medicine doctor is able to provide.  It may be more expensive to see these types of providers.  Hall Health offers some specialist care, including obstetrics and gynecology and sports medicine.
  • In order to get most medications, you must obtain a prescription from a medical provider and take it to a pharmacy.  I-SHIP provides the highest level of medication coverage if you have your prescriptions filled at Hall Health Pharmacy.

Mental health, vision and dental care


I-SHIP offers coverage of mental health care (both as an outpatient and inpatient), vision and dental care.  Consult with Lifewise to find an in-network provider of these services.

Acupuncture, Chinese medicine and naturopathy

I-SHIP does not cover the cost of complimentary or alternative medicine.  Many acupuncture providers offer affordable services, sometimes on a sliding scale.

Interpreters and translators

If you have limited English proficiency, or are not fluent in medical terminology, you may wish to request an interpreter at your visit.  At Hall Health Center, we will arrange for an over-the-phone interpreter at no cost to you.  You will need to inquire about interpreting services through other providers.

Additional information

To make an appointment with Hall Health, contact the Patient Service Center

Check out these videos from UW's Student Insurance Office that show how to enroll in I-SHIP, explain benefits, and prepare you for a doctor's visit.

More information about UW's Student Health Insurance Plan, including forms and booklets

Learn about the Affordable Care Act, a law that has changed the US health care system

Watch a video from the Khan Academy that explains the US health care system