Is the idea of a trip to the local Costa Rica health clinic scary to you? Does it bring to mind visions of dirty sheets, rusty needles, and a tank of leeches in the corner? Is that how it is in Costa Rica? No, my paranoid friend, it is not. Well, maybe the sheets are not spotless. But your local health clinic in Costa Rica—while simple—is relatively clean and modern.
Foreign residents of Costa Rica are required to pay into the national social security and health care system, the “caja.” If you are here as a tourist, you cannot use these clinics. You will have to go to a private clinic and pay. However, a visitor can use any emergency room at any hospital in the country and work out how to pay for it later.
So, let’s say you are a foreign resident and you are ready to get your first appointment at the Ebais (Equipos Básicos de Atención Integral en Salud, in case you were wondering). First of all, you will need to take in the receipt (comprobante) as proof of your first month’s payment to the “caja”. Equipped with that and your cédula (government ID), you approach the receptionist and ask for a carnet (healthcare ID card and record of appointments). They will then make a personal manila-file folder with your name on it that is kept on file in the office. An electronic file will also be opened.
At this point, you ask for a “cita” (appointment). They may take pity on you and give you one right then and there, or they may give you a phone number and tell you to call. If your Spanish is that of a beginner, have a neighbor get the appointment for you. The operators talk REALLY fast and are barely intelligible. Follow the recorded prompts asking for the area where you live and your carnet number. Often they ask us, gringos, for the cédula number also, which is several digits longer than the Tico’s number and always a source of confusion.
You are asked to arrive at the health clinic 15 minutes before your appointment, but you often wait an hour or more before you are called to see the doctor. The on-time arrival saves your place in line, though, so it is worth it. Take your cédula, carnet, and comprobante to the receptionist and she will locate your file and give it to you to take to the doctor.
The doctors can be men or women, old or young. I swear one of the last ones that saw me was not more than 12 years old! The doctors are assigned to your area by the government and, just when you are getting used to yours, they may be transferred. Sometimes they are very capable and communicative, and others barely look at you much less talk to you. Sometimes it seems the leeches in the tank in the corner would be a more proactive approach to your treatment. But here’s the thing: These state-assigned doctors are not raking in the bucks. They have a limited array of medicines at their disposal, and they cannot rush a system that moves at a snail’s pace. So, don’t get frustrated. Remember you are getting what you paid for, and you didn’t pay all that much.
The doctor will write out prescriptions to last you the next 3 to 6 months, depending on when they want to see you again. After leaving the consultation room, take your prescriptions, cédula, comprobante, and carnet to the pharmacy window and hand them in. They will return everything but the first month’s prescriptions and hand you the tear-off receipt (colilla). You will wait for about half an hour for them to call out your (mispronounced) name. And now you have a plastic bag of bubble-pack pills to last you a month!
Now, that didn’t hurt, did it??
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