Lower costs lure Americans abroad for health procedures

(Significant portions taken from the Kansas City Star, which I never do, but this was a fantastic story. )

Dawn and Brad Palmer had never ventured outside the United States until a trip last year to Brazil.

But rather than a trek through the Amazon River basin, their itinerary took them to Santa Cruz Hospital in the southern Brazilian metropolis of Curitiba.

That’s where they underwent obesity surgeries that were not covered by their health insurance policies. Their total tab, including medical costs, drugs, airfare and hotel bills: $24,000.

If they would have had the surgeries in this country, the combined medical costs alone would have totaled at least $140,000, Dawn Palmer said.

Besides saving more than $100,000, the Palmers have lost more than 290 pounds and feel better than they have in years.

“I’d tell people not to give up hope if there’s a procedure they want or need and their insurance won’t cover it, or they can’t get the care they’re looking for here in the United States,” Dawn Palmer said. “Just be open to the idea that you can find wonderful medical care from people in other countries.”

Growing legions of American patients — by one estimate, 150,000 last year — are following in the Palmers’ footsteps and traveling to countries such as India, Thailand, Brazil and Mexico for medical care. And while earlier waves of medical tourists sought mostly cosmetic procedures, more and more Americans are going abroad to get their hearts fixed, joints replaced and stomachs stapled.

“From a health-care competition and policy perspective, it’s significant,” said Gregg Laiben, president of the Metropolitan Medical Society of Greater Kansas City. “We are no longer operating on just a local or regional level. Once these other countries come into play, they become another marketplace that competes with U.S. health care.”

Most consumers who take the medical tourism plunge do it to save money. The cost difference between medical procedures in the United States and foreign countries can be huge. According to information presented at a hearing last year before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, the typical cost of a coronary bypass in the United States ranged from $55,000 to $86,000, compared with $7,000 to $7,500 in India and $15,612 to $16,913 in Thailand.

“It’s primarily a signal of the growing unaffordability, relative to American income, of health care,” said Arnold Milstein, chief physician for Mercer Health & Benefits in San Francisco. “For tens of millions of Americans, this is probably the only avenue to elective, non-emergency procedures.”

Experts attribute those whopping price differentials to lower earnings by most health-care personnel in developing countries. In addition, malpractice insurance premiums are non-existent in most foreign countries, and global health-care product suppliers sell to developing countries at cheaper prices.

American patients also are drawn to medical tourism by the high-quality reputations of many overseas health providers.

“Ninety percent of the doctors I recommend are U.S.-trained or board-certified, and they’re working in hospitals that are palatial and state of the art,” said Rudy Rupak, president of PlanetHospital, a California company that sets up overseas medical care.

Foreign hospitals that treat large numbers of English-speaking patients recruit U.S. surgeons. American doctors who make the trek typically are paid the same fees they earn in the United States, but enjoy the lower cost of living and lack of malpractice insurance premiums in the countries they move to, Rupak said.

Presidential candidates take note: We’ll just go overseas if you don’t fix the health-care industry.


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