Major Health Insurance Companies are Embracing Medical Tourism

One of the main drivers of medical tourism, and its surging popularity among people from all walks of life, is of course the cost savings.  For just about any procedure you can imagine, it is cheaper to flee the West and head to leading medical-travel destinations in places like Southeast Asia for care, whether that be for a hip replacement, Traditional Chinese Medicine, or simply affordable dental treatment.

This is definitely the case for anyone paying out-of-pocket, but it’s even true sometimes for people with good health insurance that often doesn’t cover certain things or charges high deductibles and co-payments which, though they represent just a portion of the total cost, often exceed the full charge of a procedure overseas.  Darned if you do, and darned if you don’t for many Americans.

Lately, though, US insurance companies have shown a willingness to think outside the box and take advantage of the medical-tourism phenomenon themselves, while helping their customers at the same time.  Several major companies have introduced plans that include provisions for traveling overseas for care.  This is seemingly a win-win situation as it affords the insured more options and lower out-of-pocket costs, and the insurers are paying significantly less to the healthcare providers for their services.

Maybe the most well-known example of this is a program between Wellpoint, America’s largest health-benefits company, and Serigraph, a Wisconsin-based graphics firm.  Under the scheme, members of Serigraph’s group plan have access to a wide-ranging network of modern hospitals and clinics in India.  Through the use of this “international benefit,” members are eligible for common non-emergency procedures where there is a significant cost difference between American and Indian providers, such as with various orthopaedics procedures.  The reduced out-of-pocket expenses, which are often calculated as a percentage of the total costs of care, have the potential to be dramatically reduced.

Another strategy involves Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina (BCBSSC) and their direct partnership with various hospitals and clinics overseas.  This has broadened their network of qualified facilities, with the first deal being struck with Bangkok’s Bumrungrad Hospital, as well as three hospitals in Singapore and medical centers in Turkey, Costa Rica, and Ireland.  All the facilities are Joint Commission International (JCI) accredited, and in the case of places like Bumrungrad, they offer not only quality medical treatment, but a whole different level of customer-care than is usually found in American facilities.  And it’s all part of an employee health plan.

And Aetna in California operates a “cross-border” arrangement that allows its members to choose whether to receive care in their home state, or head south to places like Mexicali, Tecate, or Tijuana, with advantages beyond cost savings.  The deal with one of Mexico’s top HMO programs, Sistemas Medicos Nacionales, allows participants to receive care in agreeable surroundings that cater to their language needs and provide a familiar situation culturally.  Might this be the wave of the future, especially in melting-pot locations in the US and Europe: health-insurance plan members from various backgrounds given the opportunity to visit their ethnic homelands for less-expensive, more culturally-friendly care without the need of a middle man like medical tourism facilitators or agencies?

So now, as several insurance companies have implemented medical tourism programs, certainly others have taken notice and are considering the potential cost savings and the benefits for their customers, would-be medical tourists.


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