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Should You Travel for Healthcare?

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Surgeries on Sale

The number of patients traveling for care is growing rapidly, and this is only the beginning, according to Karen Timmons, president and CEO of the Joint Commission International (JCI), an offshoot of the organization responsible for evaluating and endorsing U.S. hospitals. "With medical costs continuing to rise and the number of uninsured growing, the globalization of healthcare is about to explode," she says.

Rudy Rupak, president and founder of California-based Planet Hospital, one of several companies that arrange medical trips abroad, says business is booming. "Last year, we worked with 10 to 12 clients a month. Now it's 3 to 5 a day." Some U.S. corporations and insurance companies even cover treatment overseas. BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina recently began offering healthcare in Thailand, Singapore, Turkey, Ireland, and Costa Rica, and dental care in Costa Rica as well, to its 1.5 million members.

"Soon insurance companies will start giving financial incentives to encourage patients who want to seek care abroad," says Sander Domaszewicz, of Mercer, a human-resources consulting firm. "For instance, if an employee needs a non-life-threatening procedure like a hip replacement, she might be told, 'You have options. There are four or five facilities in other countries that can do this at a sixth of the U.S. price. If you choose one, we'll waive your co-payment or share of the cost.' "

For most patients and businesses, the huge savings are the obvious appeal. Almost 62 million Americans have no insurance or are underinsured, and more than 100 million don't have dental coverage. Illness and medical bills are a major cause of personal bankruptcy, according to a 2005 Harvard University study.

Treatment in foreign hospitals is a bargain: A root canal may be $280 instead of $750; a hysterectomy $3,000 to $6,000 instead of $20,000; a heart-valve replacement $9,000 to $12,000 instead of $160,000.

Michelle Schuetz, 41, opted to seek treatment in another country after spending eight years -- and $9,000 -- trying to have a baby. "The next step was in vitro fertilization [IVF], but the cost was staggering -- at least $20,000 for a single try," says Schuetz. In 2005, a friend suggested that Schuetz look overseas. After doing some research, she found the Barbados Fertility Centre, which specializes in IVF. The cost of the procedure, plus plane tickets and a hotel room, was $13,000, almost half what it would have been in the U.S., and the clinic's success rates were impressive. In addition, the facility offered a health-and-wellness package that included acupuncture and a couples massage. After two visits to Barbados (the first IVF attempt failed), Schuetz and her husband, Michael, had a baby boy. "The experience was great; I felt so relaxed the entire time. We were well cared for," says Schuetz.

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