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If you get your health insurance on the job and you need major surgery, consider going to India or Thailand for your operation. It could save you and your boss a lot of money. There are businesses operating right now to promote medical tourism. But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, many patients are skeptical.
JULIE ROVNER: Florida based United Group Programs has been administering employer health insurance plans for 39 years and it's been looking for good ways to slow the rise in healthcare spending for just about as long. So when officials heard that hospitals in developing countries like Thailand and India were offering high quality services at cut-rate prices, they decided to look into it, says vice president Jonathan Edelheit.
Mr. JONATHAN EDELHEIT (Vice President) What we found was that Americans can go overseas and get surgeries for about 80 percent less than here in the U.S. and actually get better care than they would at nicer hospitals. And more amazingly, that there are doctors over these hospitals that actually went to school and practiced here in the United States.
ROVNER: Using only a hospital in Thailand so far, the company has found that the savings can be dramatic.
Mr. EDELHEIT: The bypass that'll cost $80,000 here in the U.S. will cost about $16,000 overseas.
ROVNER: And the quality he says is equal and in some cases superior to what's available in the U.S.
Mr. EDELHEIT: The hospitals here are more like Motel 6's. And when you go overseas you're walking into a five star hotel like a Ritz Carlton. You have the highest ratio of registered nurses to patients. You have doctors who went to school here in the U.S. and practiced here in the U.S. You just get waited on hand and foot.
ROVNER: Edelheit says his company so far has about 50 clients offering the overseas surgeries as an option for patients. None of them however would agree to have their names made public - fearing negative publicity.
Edelheit concedes it's been a bit of a selling job, but he says he's optimistic employers will be able to get their employees to buy into the concept.
Mr. EDELHEIT: Because a lot of these employees will be able to take a vacation while they are over there and go to the beach and go visit some of the exotic locations.
ROVNER: And it's not just midsize employers exploring the offshore surgery concept. Arnold Milstein is the Chief Physician at the consulting firm Mercer Health and Benefits. He's been asked by several Fortune 500 companies - which he won't name either - to look into the feasibility. He says so far, he's been able to confirm that the price differential is in fact, as large as has been advertised, and that the quality is demonstrable.
Mr. ARNOLD MILSTEIN (Chief Physician, Mercer Health and Benefits): Almost all the hospitals that American employers would consider for a program like this will be hospitals that have so-called joint commission international accreditation - which is the international affiliate of the very same quality accreditation organization that, for example, Medicare uses.
ROVNER: Milstein says he's confident the trend will catch on, but he agrees that the recent spat of publicity is a bit premature.
Mr. MILSTEIN: I think right now the ratio of media exposure to actual patients migrating is going to be very disproportionate.
ROVNER: Case in point, the one patient at the one company that had publicly acknowledged offering the program, was scheduled to go to India last week. But Carl Garrett(ph), whose story was told in half a dozen national newspapers, instead is still at home in North Carolina.
His employer, Blue Ridge Paper Products, cancelled the program at the insistence of it's union. United Steel Workers official Stan Johnson, said sending workers to India for treatment, even on a voluntary basis is a dangerous precedent.
Mr. STAN JOHNSON (United Steel Workers): This is being touted as an opportunity, but what happens when the opportunity becomes a mandate?
ROVNER: The other question is how much of an incentive will it take to get employees to agree to fly half way around the world when they are sick. Helen Darling(ph) is President of the National Business Group on Health, and former head of employee benefits for 55,000 workers at Xerox.
She said she had trouble even getting patients who needed major surgery to fly partway across the country to a so-called center of excellence.
Ms. HELEN DARLING (President of the National Business Group on Health): And in those instances we actually paid for both travel cost for the individual and the loved one. And we had the evidence of superior outcomes. And still less than 50 percent of the people would want to take advantage of that.
ROVNER: The now cancelled program at Blue Ridge Paper was going to offer a added incentive. It was going to share the savings with employees who agreed to travel overseas for their medical care, up to $10,000. But other employers are shying away from outright payments, which some say could expose them to law suits if something goes wrong.
Julie Rovner, NPR News.
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