Americans Increasingly Traveling Overseas for Cheaper Surgeries

May 10, 2006

Americans looking to save money on medical procedures are increasingly traveling overseas for surgeries not covered by their insurance to avoid costly hospital stays in the United States.

The trend is being driven by rising health care costs and frustrated ranks of uninsured American workers, said John Knox, a spokesman for MedSolution, a Vancouver, B.C.-based company that brokers transactions between American patients and foreign hospitals.

Many Americans choose to go overseas because they face crippling medical expenses for treatments performed in the United States, said Peter Lindland, chief executive of Medical Nomad, a Florida-based Web site providing information for prospective medical tourists.

Surgeries are cheaper in Third World countries where salaries and litigation expenses are lower, Lindland said.

“They have a choice between their health and their financial solvency,” he said.

The practice is called “medical tourism” in the United States because many Americans take a vacation at the same time.

Investment manager Howard Aschwald, 52, of Belvedere, said he saved nearly $4,000 on a laser eye procedure to correct myopia that was not covered by his insurance and nearly $2,000 on a heart screening he had done in Bombay, India.

Aschwald and his wife also scored a long-awaited vacation to India, but at a cost: They paid nearly $3,000 for their combined airfare and stayed in a $185-a-night hotel.

Freelance writer Jeannine Walston, 32, of San Rafael, is planning a trip this month to Cologne, Germany, for a series of cancer treatments that have not been approved in the United States. She estimates the treatments will cost her up to $40,000.

“Conventional cancer care in the U.S. does not address the underlying causes of disease,” she said.

But some experts warn about the danger of unregulated facilities.

“You do hear nightmare stories in this industry about people who set up ad hoc surgical centers in their garage and they’re not qualified to be performing surgeries,” Knox said. “It does happen out there.”

Peter Warren, a spokesman for the California Medical Association, said the practice will not likely have widespread appeal.

“There will be a few people in the upper strata of society who will take advantage of it, but it’s not going to deal with the 7 million uninsured in California, it’s not going to bring down the price of premiums for health care, and it’s not going to unclog the emergency rooms,” Warren said.

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