San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Health Reform May Boost Medical Tourism

Even as the $940-billion health care reform law in the United States will expand medical care to an estimated 30 million previously uninsured persons, there will still be a strong market for medical tourism, said Renee-Marie Stephano, president of the Florida-based Medical Tourism Association.

Take U.S. conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, for example. He said he’d go to Costa Rica if the reform were to pass in the United States.

“Yeah, I’ll go to Costa Rica for treatment,” Limbaugh said before passage of the bill that ushers in sweeping health care reform in the U.S.

Limbaugh wouldn’t be alone, Stephano indicated.

“More people are going to begin using health services (in the U.S.), and that will put a higher demand on the country’s health system,” she said, explaining that wait times for treatment may increase and people will  begin to look for alternatives. “The situation may be compounded with the (aging) baby boomer generation.”

But it’s not just the impatient who will look abroad, Stephano said, adding that even though more people will have access to health insurance, there will be an increase in numbers of the underinsured.

It’s these underinsured who have traditionally provided a large client base for medical tourism, Stephano said, as people look abroad for services that U.S. insurance companies deem unnecessary, including hip replacements, dental care and cosmetic surgeries.

Patients can find similar quality in medical services in countries like Costa Rica, India and Brazil, but at a fraction of the cost, said Michael Quirós, who oversees Latin American operations for the Medical Tourism Association.

“Outside of the U.S., 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 care reform law is 100 percent positive for the medical tourism industry.”

The reform, which U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law on Tuesday, will require every American to have health insurance by 2014 and it will expand Medicaid – a program to provide health care to people with low incomes – to people who cannot afford insurance.

It will also prohibit insurance companies from discriminating against patients based on medical history, and it will lower the cost of prescription drugs for seniors.

According to a study done by DeloitteCenter for Health Solutions, an estimated 750,000 U.S. citizens traveled abroad for medical care in 2007. This number was expected to increase to six million in 2010.

Costa Rica, with its three internationally accredited hospitals and proximity to the U.S., 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 polished their marketing material, hoping to capitalize on the North American clientele.

“I think it could grow here,” said Jorge Cortés Rodríguez, head of the Council for International Promotion of Costa Rica Medicine (PROMED). “I think the insurance agencies are going to start to think about ways to lower costs, but maintain quality, and they are going to begin to see the opportunities outside of U.S. borders.”

Currently, Costa Rica receives approximately 25,000 medical tourists from the U.S. every year, and PROMED expects that number to grow by 5 to 7 percent in the coming years.

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