Sign of the times: medical tourism

October 3rd, 2006 by Julie Ferguson

If the term “medical tourism” hasn’t crossed you radar screen yet, it will soon because tens of thousands of your fellow citizens are now traveling to India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Turkey to have surgery performed at bargain basement prices. There are even medical tourism agencies cropping up to help prospective travelers match the right destination with their medical needs and arrange all the travel details.
Why would people stray so far from home risking all the vagaries of a foreign medical and legal system for a medical procedures available within a few mile radius of home? Cost is the obvious reason. A hip replacement that would cost $40,000 here might cost under $6,000 in India. Rotator cuff repair would cost less than a tenth the price, or about $3,700 versus $40,000. Those are numbers that would make you think twice.
Faced with medical costs that have skyrocketed year after year, many employers and insurers are looking at those numbers and finding them attractive, too. To curb costs, Blue Ridge Paper in Canton, N.C., recently made plans to send paper mill technician Carl Garrett to India for gall bladder and shoulder surgery – they even offered Garrett 25 percent of the savings, a deal he found appealing. That is, until United Steelworkers interceded and put a halt to the plans. USW President Leo Gerard had this to say in a letter to Congress.

Our members, along with thousands of unrepresented workers, are now being confronted with proposals to literally export themselves to have certain “expensive” medical procedures provided in India.

With companies now proposing to send their own American employees abroad for less expensive health care services, there can be no doubt that the U.S. health system is in immediate need of massive reform.

The right to safe, secure and dependable health care in one’s own country should not be surrendered for any reason, certainly not to fatten the profit margins of corporate investors.

Right now, much of the surgery involves elective procedures such as dentistry and plastic surgery, but demand is rapidly accelerating. How long before employers and insurers are looking to have injured workers fly to Phuket to get a rotator cuff repaired?