A concept that was rare even a decade ago has slowly been gaining steam, often as a result of word-of-mouth. That concept is medical tourism -- people in need of medical procedures traveling to have those procedures done.
There are three categories of medical tourism:
Domestic Medical Tourism
In the past, Hoss says, many insurance companies were comfortable looking at medical travel that involved foreign countries, because of cost savings.
"These days, though, the focus seems to be more on travel across states," she states. "Insurance companies are asking, 'Where can we get the best price within the United States?'" Edelstein has seen growth, as well.
The Issues: Cost and Quality
Two primary determinants of whether people will travel for medical procedures are cost and quality. In terms of cost, according to Tom Hamilton, president of Affordable Health Care Alliance, some insurance companies are starting to provide incentives to employees for engaging in medical tourism.
"Since medical procedures tend to be more expensive in certain parts of the United States than in other parts and overseas, more insurance companies are offering employees an option," he states. That option: "We will pay the full cost of the procedure to have it done at a low-cost facility in the U.S. or overseas, or you will pay a deductible if you want to have the procedure done locally."
Reform Another Driver?
With the advent of nationalized health care in Canada, there has been a growing trend for people in that country to travel to other countries for their medical procedures, often because of the significant waits for treatment. Will health care reform in the U.S. lead to a similar trend?
According to Jonathan Edelheit, CEO of the Medical Tourism Association, health care reform will have a positive impact on medical tourism, simply because reform will ultimately increase health care costs.
"Obviously, medical tourism is growing in popularity because the cost of care overseas is less than it is in the United States," he points out. "So, as the costs increase even more here, it will drive even more people overseas."
Implications for Brokers
What impact does, and will, medical tourism have on brokers who sell health care coverage? "We have been seeing more mini-medical plans and limited medical plans implementing medical tourism," replies Edelheit. "They are doing this because it makes their benefits more rich and comprehensive."
For example, a heart procedure that would cost $100,000 in the United States might be covered at $10,000 by the medical plan. However, this $10,000 benefit might actually pay the full cost of the surgery in another country.