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Lack of insurance or timely access to your regular doctor doesn't have to mean going without needed health care.

If you're uninsured and seeking stopgap medical care before you find coverage again, you can triage your way to better health by understanding the trade-offs of several care options, experts say. A retail clinic, urgent care facility or community health center may be a suitable fit, depending on the severity of your medical need and your personal preferences.

A broad spectrum of care is available, from the limited offerings of a retail clinic to the high-end capacity of an emergency department, said Ateev Mehrotra, a policy analyst at Rand and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

"They're all places you don't need an appointment, there's open extended hours, and they're there to treat people who can't get in to see their regular provider," Mehrotra said.

If you have a regular doctor you'd like to keep seeing but fear you can't pay full price because of lost coverage, give the doctor a chance to work out a charity care arrangement, payment plan or possible treatment changes to lower costs, said Dr. Lori Heim, the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, who practices in Laurinburg, N.C.

Most doctors will try to work with patients to ensure their continuity of care, she said. "Physicians also value that personal relationship that develops."

Still, a shortage of primary care physicians has left many scrambling to keep up with patient demand. The wait time for appointments can be a deal breaker, forcing patients to look elsewhere for care.

Retail clinics

Convenience and expense are two reasons uninsured patients who suspect they have a routine minor ailment -- such as the flu, strep throat, simple bronchitis or a skin condition -- should consider visiting a retail clinic, Mehrotra said.

Retail clinics also typically offer vaccinations and physicals for school, camp or sports on a walk-in basis, and most are open evenings and weekends. They can be found in national chain stores such as Walgreens and CVS/pharmacy, as well as hospital systems. They're staffed by nurse practitioners or physician assistants who can diagnose and treat ailments and prescribe medication.

Unlike emergency rooms and other health care settings where there's no way to know how much the final bill will be, retail clinics post their prices on menu boards and often online.

Patients "know exactly what they're going to pay," Mehrotra said.

CVS/pharmacy stores, for example, have 500 MinuteClinics in 25 states. They're all open seven days a week and have weekday evening hours. The average cost of treatment is $62, said Andrew Sussman, the president of MinuteClinic, based in Minneapolis.

"It's Sunday morning and your 10-year-old has a sore throat and a fever," Sussman said. "We're a good option for people."

Retail clinics offer a quality of care equivalent to that of urgent care centers and private doctors' offices, according to a 2009 study from Rand. Its typical patients are young adults who have no regular health care provider.

Limitations: Patients looking for a doctor or on-site X-ray or lab facilities won't find them at retail clinics, and many of the clinics won't treat babies and toddlers younger than 18 months.

Urgent care centers

For care that's more comprehensive than that at retail clinics but not as complete as that offered in hospital emergency departments, urgent care centers are an option.

They also don't take appointments, but the centers do provide doctors and treatment for midlevel problems, such as simple fractures, sprains, bruises, burns and cuts requiring stitches. Many also treat asthma and bladder infections.

"Our goal is to get people in, treated and out within an hour," said Jim Greenwood, the CEO of Concentra, a Dallas health care provider that owns and operates more than 300 urgent care clinics in 40 states.

"We're not battling the primary care doctors," Greenwood said. "We're supplementing what they do."

Transparent pricing also has caught on at Concentra, which shows in English and Spanish the cost of three levels of service, which typically range from $95 to $190, he said.

Concentra's urgent care centers are generally located closer to where people work than where they live, and many have extended hours to accommodate patients' work schedules. Back pain is one of the top reasons patients seek care there, and each center is staffed with a doctor and a physical therapist, Greenwood said.

"The beauty of our model is the physician and the physical therapists are communicating," he said. "They know if the patient is getting better or not with physical therapy."

Limitations: Like retail clinics, urgent care centers typically don't treat infants. Costs are 30% to 40% higher than at retail clinics, reflecting more staff training and resources, Mehrotra said.

Community health centers

Community health centers are nonprofits that typically serve uninsured people and those with low incomes. They charge patients on a sliding fee scale, based on federal guidelines and a person's ability to pay.

"It's a good place to come and feel welcome without being embarrassed if you don't have the insurance or you don't have the money," said Lolita Lopez, the president of Westside Family Healthcare in Wilmington, Del.

Many health centers help patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes manage their ailments so they don't end up in costly emergency rooms.

Community health centers don't consider themselves one-shot deals. They offer an array of primary and preventive care services, sometimes including dental clinics, optometry, pediatric and obstetric/gynecology facilities under one roof. They often function as a medical home, a place patients can return to over time as theirs medical needs change.

"Their focus is on continuity of care, while retail clinics, urgent care and ERs are treating one problem and don't necessarily have to see you again," Mehrotra said.

Limitations: Most community health centers require appointments and documentation of income. Wait times can be long, because resources are often stretched thin -- even more so in this period of high joblessness. Nationally, health centers saw a 21% jump in uninsured patients between June 2008 and June 2009.

Hospital emergency rooms

Emergency rooms are always open and stocked with lifesaving equipment and personnel. Doctors say patients with potentially serious symptoms, such as a high fever, shortness of breath or chest pain, should seek ER care without delay. About half of emergency room patients are admitted to hospitals.

Limitations: Of all the above options, the ER is by far the most expensive place to receive medical care, and patients with less urgent needs can face long waits before being treated.

This article was reported by Kristen Gerencher for MarketWatch.