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Health care tourism, now covered by insurance?

April 27, 2009 |  5:19 pm

Wellpoint logo Free-marketers like to talk about health-care reform in terms of empowering consumers to spend their dollars in more efficient ways -- for example, by letting them see what different doctors and hospitals charge for the same procedure, and how their results vary. Paying more doesn't guarantee getting better health care; in fact, there may be no relationship at all. Just look at the United States, which spends far more than any other country on health care but still trails in some key indicators.

But the wide variation in the cost of health care also creates opportunities for those willing to travel in search of a better deal. And now, the nation's largest health insurer, WellPoint, is starting to pay their way.

WellPoint is conducting a pilot with Serigraph Inc., a specialty graphics company with operations in Wisconsin, Mexico and Asia, that gives U.S. employees the option to travel to India to have surgery on a non-emergency basis, said WellPoint's Paul McBride, vice president of health care management and services. McBride was speaking at a panel on health-care economics at the Milken Institute's Global Conference today in Beverly Hills. The India option makes sense for Serigraph, McBride said, given that a number of its employees come from that country. The cost of care is about 80% lower, largely because of dramatically lower charges for labor, drugs and medical devices, McBride said. Yet he contended that the results of the care were at least as good.

One conference attendee -- Dr. Sally Andriamiarisoa, vice president of advancement at Riverside Community Health Foundation -- questioned the morality of the arrangement, arguing that the U.S. shouldn't be consuming other countries' scarce health resources. Andiamiarisoa, who is from the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius, said the practice wasn't fair to countries that, to conserve their meager health-care dollars, do much more to promote wellness than the United States does.

But the globalizing health-care industry is already positioning itself to take advantage of the national differences in treatment costs. McBride said Apollo Hospitals, India's largest health-care delivery system, is actively seeking deals with insurers in higher-cost countries to attract patients from overseas. He couldn't say whether Apollo was trying to fill excess capacity or simply increase profit margins.

There has long been a global market for cosmetic surgery, with patients traveling far and wide for deals on liposuction, gastric bypasses and dental work. What's different now, McBride said, is that traveling for medical care is starting to move into mainstream insurance coverage. WellPoint, which is looking to expand its pilot program, is focusing on cardiac and joint-replacement surgeries that require about a two-week hospital stay. The choice to travel will be the patient's, and he or she they won't have to go to India, McBride said; there may be significant savings available from hospitals within the U.S.

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