Medical tourism expected to increase with U.S. health reform

March 19, 2010

Even as the $940 billion health reform in the United States will expand medical care coverage to 30 million previously uninsured citizens, there will still be a market for medical tourism, said Renee-Marie Stephano, president of the U.S. – based nonprofit Medical Tourism Association.

“We anticipate medical tourism to increase,” Stephano said in an interview with The Tico Times on Monday. “More people will have access to health insurance (in the United States ), but you are going to see an increase in the underinsured.”

It´s these underinsured that have traditionally provided a large client base for medical tourism, Stephano said, as people look abroad for services that United States insurance companies deem “not necessary” including hip replacements, dental care or cosmetic surgery.

Patients are able to find such non-essential services of similar quality but at a fraction of the cost in countries like Costa Rica, India and Brazil, said Michael Quirós, who oversees Latin American operations for the Medical Tourism Association.

However, it´s not just the underinsured who will be looking abroad for medical care. With increased strain placed on medical services in the U.S. – because of greater demand – insurance companies will start offering incentives for their clients to receive medical treatment abroad.

“Outside of the United States, medical care is less expensive – in some areas, five or six times so,” he said. “Insurance companies and employers recognize the price differential and will encourage patients to seek attention abroad.”

“I think the health reform is 100 percent positive for the medical tourism industry,” Quiros said.

The reform, which the U.S. Congress passed on Sunday night, will require every American to have health insurance by 2014 and expand Medicaid to cover people who cannot afford to pay for insurance themselves. It will also prohibit insurance companies from discriminating against patients based on their medical history and will lower prescription medicine costs for seniors.

Stephano said the United States system may start to resemble the system in Canada and Europe, where greater demand for health care has increased wait-times and pushed individuals to seek alternatives.

“More people are going to begin using health services, which puts a higher demand on the country´s health system,” she said. “The situation may be compounded with the (aging of the) baby boom generation.”

According to a study done by Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, an estimated 750,000 Americans traveled abroad for medical care in 2007. This number is expected to increase to six million in 2010.

Costa Rica, with its three internationally-accredited hospitals and proximity to the United States, is in a unique position to take advantage of the emerging market, according to health industry experts. In recent years, the country´s private hospitals and clinics have buffed up their marketing materials, hoping to capitalize on U.S. clientele.

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