NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 1, 2008

With an estimated 750,000 Americans traveling abroad for in-patient and out-patient procedures, insurance plans are beginning to cover treatment overseas.  To make travel abroad even more attractive, these plans often throw in a bonus for employees if they agree to undergo elective surgeries abroad, or they offer to split the cost savings between the employer and worker, says the Wall Street Journal.

Among the employers jumping on the medical tourism bandwagon are:

  • Maine-based supermarket chain Hannaford Bros. Co., which began allowing its 18,000 insured workers and dependents to travel to an internationally accredited hospital in Singapore for surgical hip and knee replacements; the company's self-funded plan, administered by Aetna Inc., waives out-of-pocket expenses, saving patients up to $3,000, and reimburses all travel costs.
  • Corporate Synergies Group Inc., which advises companies on worker benefits, says at least a dozen of its clients with 250 to 2,000 employees are considering adding medical tourism programs in the next few years.
  • Blue Cross & Blue Shield of South Carolina created a subsidiary for medical tourism called Companion Global Healthcare Inc., which maintains a network of international doctors and hospitals.
  • Some individual policies offer medical tourism options; however, labor unions have opposed some efforts to set up medical tourism plans and Medicare generally doesn't cover treatments abroad.

While medical tourism isn't expected to be a solution to the country's soaring health-care costs, the practice is intended to produce savings for insurers, employers and workers.  Open-heart surgery, which can cost roughly $100,000 in the United States, can be done at an internationally accredited hospital in India for just $8,500, for instance.

Proponents note that many international hospitals are staffed with American and European-trained physicians. Many facilities also are accredited by an affiliate of the Joint Commission, a nonprofit group that is the main accrediting body for U.S. hospitals.

Source: M.P. McQueen, "Paying Workers to Go Abroad for Health Care," Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2008.

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