Employers, Insurers Consider Overseas Health Care "Medical tourism," the practice of traveling to other countries for medical care, was first embraced by consumers. But now, employers and health insurance companies are considering offering international treatment options to customers to save on costs.
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Employers, Insurers Consider Overseas Health Care

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Employers, Insurers Consider Overseas Health Care

Employers, Insurers Consider Overseas Health Care

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

As part of our series on international medicine, NPR's Greg Allen has this report on the fast-growing field called medical tourism.

GREG ALLEN: The name can be misleading. While there are many people who choose a medical procedure in an exotic locale so they can enjoy the travel experience, medical tourism also includes people like Kevin Stewart.

KEVIN STEWART: I had cirrhosis of the liver. I saw a gastroenterologist who informed me that it has advanced in such a way that liver transplant was my only option.

ALLEN: Today, Stewart looks great. He's 49, tanned, relaxed and clearly enjoying his recuperation on Florida's Big Pine Key. Both he and his girlfriend have their boats moored in the canal that runs behind their backyard. But just a few months ago, he was desperate. Stewart had his own landscape maintenance business in Naples, Florida, but because of high premiums, had let his health insurance lapse. Fortunately, he had a potential donor - his sister - and he began calling hospitals to see how much a liver transplant might cost.

STEWART: It was $30,000 to be - for them to check me out to see how badly I needed a liver. And if they decided I needed a liver transplant, I should pay them $300,000 and they will work toward that.

ALLEN: Stewart quickly settled on a hospital in New Delhi and a surgeon who, at that time, had already performed 120 similar liver transplants. He says it was an easy decision in part because it really was his only option. But others saw it differently.

STEWART: Everybody I spoke to thought I was a crazy person. Why would you go there, you know, you're going to get infected, it's a dirty place. Now, I'm certainly happy to spread the word to people that you do have choices. You don't have to lay down and die.

ALLEN: Ruben Toral is a medical tourism consultant who works with Bumrungrad and other hospitals throughout Asia. He says the appeal is simple. It's about value.

RUBEN TORAL: Great quality, immediate service, service that you would never find in an American hospital or even a European hospital. Price, obviously, is going to be anywhere from one-half to one-eighth the cost of health care in the United States. And access, you can see a doctor when you want to see a doctor. There is no issues of waiting.

ALLEN: Toral and some of the hospitals he represents recently joined with other institutions in the U.S. and around the world to form a trade group, the Medical Tourism Association. They are working to bring some order to the rapidly expanding universe of global medical care. One goal, Toral say, is to make medical tourism appealing not just to the uninsured, but also to employers and health insurance carriers.

TORAL: If the insurance companies created essentially a international provider network where people could actually choose to go overseas for health care in exchange for lower premiums, lower co-pays, then that in fact would be a very attractive alternative for corporations who are looking at lowering their health care costs.

ALLEN: Former company executive Jonathan Edelheit says overseas treatment is offered just as an option, but there are inducements. The company covers all travel and expenses, eliminates the member's deductible and co-pay, and now, in some cases, offers to pay the patient $5,000 in cash. With all that, he says, medical tourism is still a good deal for insurance companies and employers.

JONATHAN EDELHEIT: Another big issue is the quality of care. What assurances are there that a hospital in a foreign country measures up to American standards? Edelheit says his association is working on a project that will allow consumers to compare U.S. hospitals with those overseas.

EDELHEIT: Statistics that are addressing certain things like infection rates, success rates, mortality rates in the hospital that people can actually compare so they know the care that they're getting. They know that this hospital has a 3 percent infection rate per a thousand people versus this one that has an 8 percent. And obviously, you'd want to go to a hospital that has better care, which means lower infection rates and higher positive outcomes.

ALLEN: While patients should be free to travel overseas and reap savings if they wish, Cortez says one consequence may be that people who insist on receiving treatment only in the U.S. will end up paying more.

NATHAN CORTEZ: Yeah, we see this all the time with other industries. And health care has been notoriously a local industry, and now, you know, that's - it's succumbing to globalization like other industries have.

ALLEN: Greg Allen, NPR News.

BLOCK: And there's a checklist of items to consider before heading abroad for medical care. That's at npr.org.

NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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