Open enrollment for federal health insurance exchanges for the Affordable Care Act is now in effect, and has already seen enough web traffic from Americans trying to compare plans that servers have experienced glitches in areas like Pennsylvania and Maryland during the first few hours of its launch.
As Americans slowly uncover how Obamacare will affect their coverage and savings in the coming years, other financially savvy — and adventurous — patients and baby boomers have chosen to turn to a growing heath care phenomenon overseas. It’s called medical tourism, and in addition to providing Americans with an alternative source of medical care, it’s also reduced costs on popular services and procedures by thousands of dollars.
What is Medical Tourism?
The aging population in the United States is increasingly pushed out of health care services due to the exorbitant costs of the American health marketplace and limited coverage for pre-existing conditions. In order to reduce medical costs and still receive the care they need, boomers are taking planned trips to low-priced hospitals and facilities across international waters — and medical facilities and staff overseas are eagerly embracing medical tourists with deep discounts in tow.
According to Patients Beyond Borders, a consumer resource on medical tourism, Americans can save as much as 90 percent on the cost of health care abroad, compared to U.S. prices.
Commonly Visited Countries for Medical Care
Countries all over the world are dipping their toes into the flourishing health care tourism sector, where demand is high from American patients and profits are great for local medical industries. Patients Beyond Borders‘ list of the most popular medical tourism destinations and their potential discount percentages are:
- Brazil: 25-40%
- Costa Rica: 40-65%
- India: 65-90%
- Korea: 30-45%
- Malaysia: 65-80%
- Mexico: 40-65%
- Singapore: 30-45%
- Taiwan: 40-55%
- Thailand: 50-70%
- Turkey: 50-65%
Health care procedures most sought-after by medical tourists include cosmetic surgeries, cardiovascular care, gastric bypasses, sports medicine treatment, and hip and knee replacements. In addition to these medical services, patients traveling overseas for cheaper health care are also taking advantage of foreign dentistry at low prices.
Storm Cunningham, CEO of ReCitizen, needed dental work for decay under a crown, but instead of going to his Virginia-based dentist who quoted him $1,850 for the procedure, he sought the assistance of a dentist based in Mexico.
“My wife and I were about to leave on vacation to the Mayan Riviera of Mexico, so [I] went onto the MexConnect website (for tourists and ex-pats) and asked if anyone knew of a good dentist in Playa del Carmen,” Cunningham said. “I got a referral, made an appointment and stopped by the office.”
“He whipped out a neat little gadget with a counterweight. The crown flew into the air, he caught it in one hand, he cleaned out the decay and re-cemented the original crown. That was over a year ago, and I’ve had no problems with the tooth.”
The price he paid for the repair: $70.
Savings like this are what drive patients into the medical tourism free market, where cash is king and tourists often receive faster care compared to the approval timeline and paperwork that’s become commonplace within the U.S. heath insurance business.
Personal finance expert Clark Howard highlighted the flaws of the existing health system in the United States.
“We don’t have a market-based health care system yet,” Howard said. “Without the patient being the customer, normal market forces fail. The best comparison I can give is that when you go to the dentist, parking is free, [but] when you go to most doctors’ buildings or medical centers, you have to pay for parking. It is a great example of the distortions that exist when you don’t have a market-based business.”
Changes Under the Affordable Care Act
During the initial roll-out of health care reform in 2010 and 2011, changes such as the ability to keep children covered under their parents’ policy until age 26 and free preventative care for women and Medicare recipients were welcome aspects of the new law.
In its last enactment stages, open enrollment for health care exchanges are expected to provide coverage to the roughly 30 million Americans currently uninsured. Individuals with pre-existing conditions — whether they’re currently self-insured and have minimal coverage at a high cost, or never had coverage at all — can now sign up for health care via the health care marketplaces without the threat of being denied health insurance.
With the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act occurring in 2014, the effect of Obamacare regulations on medical tourism is largely undefined — but still optimistic — among the international medical community.
Medical Tourism Thriving Despite Obamacare
Although the conditions set forth in the Affordable Care Act prevent health insurance companies from denying or capping coverage for high-risk policyholders, the costs within the health care field can be too high for many expectant retirees to shoulder, despite lower out-of-pocket costs for copayments, coinsurance and deductibles.
“I think Americans will still travel overseas, particularly if someone selects a bronze plan under Obamacare, as the out-of-pocket would be huge,” Howard surmised.
Aside from the continued savings outlook that medical tourism provides U.S. patients, experts are confident that the health industry abroad will actually benefit from the implementation of Obamacare for a couple of reasons:
1. Fewer Doctors Available
Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders, told Travel Market Report, “You can’t have 30 million Americans entering our already broken system without a tradeoff in the form of longer waits for specialty care.”
This influx of new patients coupled with a shortage of doctors in the United States is expected to result in a time-suck for individuals who are in need of immediate and efficient medical assistance.
2. Private Companies Looking to Save Money
Avoiding long wait lists for kidney donors and surgical procedures is one of the justifications for a thriving medical tourism market; the other advantage is lower costs for companies that sponsor health insurance for their employees.
HSM, a manufacturer in North Carolina, is one of the many companies that encourage employees to undergo costly medical services across U.S. borders. The company reported that this medical alternative has saved it nearly $10 million in the last five years.
Risks of Medical Tourism
More countries across the globe are gaining a competitive edge in the health care sector, especially as international hospitals earn Joint Commission International accreditation that requires facilities to meet the same standards as the U.S. Joint Commission.
However, there is still a level of risk that prospective medical tourists should be aware of, such as legal complications should malpractice or post-operative concerns come into play. Controversial procedures that are either illegal or unavailable in the United States, such as experimental stem-cell treatment and assisted suicide services, are also more attainable overseas, which presents added unknowns for patients and their families.
For now, medical tourism, especially in the early stages of the Affordable Care Act, is still a viable and highly accessible option for baby boomers and U.S. residents who are looking for an advanced level of medical care without breaking the bank.