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Medical Tourism: South Carolina



Patients going FROM South Carolina
TO other countries to get care


City: COLUMBIA in 2009
U.S. patients travel overseas for savings
— article in Denver Post By Tom Murphy, The Associated Press
Posted: 08/24/2009 01:00:00 AM MDT

Elizabeth Kunz of Columbia, South Carolina

Elizabeth Kunz left her dentist’s office this spring with a mouth full of problems and no way to pay for them. The South Carolina resident went out of her way, literally, to find a solution, which turned out to be in Central America. Her trip to the tropics is part of a health insurance experiment for trimming medical costs: overseas care.

As Washington searches for ways to tame the country’s escalating health care costs, more insurers are offering networks of surgeons and dentists in places like India and Costa Rica, where costs can be as much as 80 percent less than in America.

Until recently, most Americans traveling abroad for cheaper non-emergency medical care were either uninsured or wealthy. But the profile of medical tourists is changing. Now, they are more likely to be people covered by private insurers, which are looking to keep costs from spiraling out of control.

The four largest commercial U.S. health insurers with enrollments totaling nearly 100 million people have either launched pilot programs offering overseas travel or explored the option.

Several smaller insurers and brokers also have introduced travel options for hundreds of employers around the country.

Growth has been slow in part because some patients and employers have concerns about care quality and legal responsibility if something goes wrong. Plus, patients who have traditional plans with low deductibles may have little incentive to take a trip.

Some price breaks in U.S.

But a growing number of consumers with high-deductible plans, which make patients pay more out of pocket, could make these trips more inviting.

In the meantime, the insurance industry’s embrace of overseas care has had a pleasant side effect at home: Some U.S. care providers are offering price breaks to counter the foreign competition.

This domestic competition and the slumping economy have led to slower growth for medical tourism over the past year, as patients put off elective procedures that involve big out-of- pocket costs, said Paul Keckley, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions.

Last year, the center estimated that 6 million Americans would make medical tourism trips in 2010. But Keckley has since shaved that projection to about 1.6 million people. Still, that more than doubles the roughly 750,000 Americans who traveled abroad in 2007, the last year for which Deloitte had actual numbers.

Keckley expects the medical tourism industry to recover.

Health care costs for employers who offer insurance to their workers were projected to rise 9.2 percent this year and another 9 percent in 2010, according to the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

A push from her insurer

Kunz, 47, initially doubted the potential savings she might see from visiting a Costa Rican dentist though a program offered by her insurer, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. But a little comparison shopping with help from the insurer persuaded her to get on a plane.

She had eight crowns replaced, a tooth filled and a root canal.

The work would have cost her $10,000 out of pocket back home, but she paid just $2,800 after insurance.

If you have the travel option …

Health insurers trying to tame rising medical costs have started offering medical care in other countries as a money-saving solution. Here are some things to consider.

  • How high is your deductible? Travel can make little sense if insurance is already covering most of your bill for care closer to home.

  • Are there any incentives? Some insurers will waive the deductible if you agree to take the trip because the savings to them is so great. Employers also may provide time off for the travel, and some programs will pick up travel costs too.

  • What kind of savings can you find abroad? Medical tourism can cost 80 percent less, not counting travel costs, depending on the procedure. Dental work, hip and knee replacements, heart bypasses and cosmetic procedures are common procedures for medical tourists.

  • How can you check for quality? Ask your insurer how it vetted the hospital or care providers in its overseas care network. Ask how many times the doctors have done your procedure.
  • How will follow-up care be handled? Some U.S. providers have agreements with hospitals in other countries to coordinate care after a procedure.
  • What are the travel expenses outside the cost for care? These can run anywhere from several hundred dollars to $10,000.

Sources: Medical Tourism Association; Harvard Medical School professor Sharon Kleefield

End of Associated Press article from the
Denver Post: 8/24/2009



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