Medical Tourism Expands As Alternative to Obamacare

Published May 31, 2016

Across the globe, entrepreneurial individuals and organizations are looking at the possibility of providing medical tourism services at an increased rate, particularly in the wake of the new U.S. health care law. Costa Rica’s rising medical tourism industry could serve as a test case for this as providers prepare to benefit from the impact of the new regulations in the United States.

Using HSA Dollars

Vicki Morales, owner of Costa Rican Medical Care, a division of HSA Clearing Corp., says increased interest in medical tourism services began as employers and patients sought cost-saving measures and the best ways of using funds in health savings accounts.

“Medical tourism is the best use of HSA dollars for accessing and maintaining your health,” Morales said. “You can have an entire battery of diagnostic tests and consultations in Costa Rica for less than the price of one major test in the United States.”

In the United States a nuclear stress test with a cardiologist and radiologist fees can run close to $7,500, whereas in Costa Rica the same test costs less than $1,000 and includes all the necessary consultations, Morales notes.

Looking for Alternatives

Elizabeth Thomas, president Caduceus World Wide, a medical travel company, began looking for alternatives to U.S. health care even before the introduction of President Obama’s federal legislation.

“About two years ago, before we saw the spotlight on federal health care legislation, we started looking to see what we could do as experts in the industry to assist customers in getting good coverage and deal with issues concerning coverage, costs, and timeliness of services,” said Thomas. “We wanted to provide customers with the opportunity to save money.”

Interest in medical tourism has expanded rapidly as Americans react to the new federal law.

“When the recent federal health care legislation was passed we saw a dramatic increase in the number of hits from America on our Costa Rican medical tourism Web site. We interpret that to mean that people are afraid that they won’t be able to be treated in the United States and are looking for a more reasonably priced alternative,” said Morales.

National Commitment

The opportunity for expanded medical tourism in Costa Rica is a large draw for both her and her company, Morales explained.

“Costa Rica is ideal for medical tourism because of its proximity to the United States and its excellent quality of care. It’s less of a culture shock for patients, the country is politically stable, it is a relatively short flight, and it is easy for the patients to return for rechecks,” Morales said.

In addition, Costa Rica has embraced a national commitment to medical tourism, Morales says.

“The country has been studying medical tourism for a long time, and they have planned grants and strict guidelines for providers,” Morales said. “The country is starting to provide more tourism opportunities for individuals with physical limitations.”

Passionate Providers

Morales maintains there is a positive cultural difference in Costa Rica’s competitive health-care marketplace, with doctors offering a wide range of services for cash and credit card payments.

“The thing that excites me most about medical tourism in Costa Rica is the passion with which providers give care. There is a true concern for the patient, and providers work hard to excel at their jobs and to learn the newest procedures and techniques,” said Morales. “It’s important for them that the patient has a good result. It’s kind of like the caring we had in health care in the U.S. twenty or thirty years ago.”

A Look to the Future

Although they entered the medical tourism market well before the recent reforms, Thomas and Morales both express belief the future is bright for medical tourism as patients flee the U.S. system.

“We are already trying to implement medical tourism in our self-insured groups or fulfilling insured groups who can’t afford the extras, like dental coverage,” Thomas said. “We are anticipating the domino effect: Employers can cut benefits to save money and push people into the exchanges, but then low benefits and high costs put the onus back on the consumer. That’s when the consumer will really start to look to medical tourism as a cost-saver.”

Thomas maintains it will still be a couple of years before the full effect on medical tourism becomes apparent.

“Until Americans start seeing the higher prices and large companies see how much they have to pay in premiums, medical tourism might not take off,” warns Thomas. “It will be a couple years before America really sees the downfalls of the federal program. There will be doctor shortages, waiting lists, increased costs. Once those impacts are felt, medical tourism may increase in popularity.”

United States ‘Way Off Track’

Morales says interested patients should consider a “test trip” if they have need of a mild procedure.

“We encourage people, if their procedure is relatively mild or if they are here for dental care, they ought to come and enjoy the country for a few days first, and then get their procedure done,” Morales suggested.

“In the United States we’ve gotten way off track,” she added. “We aren’t dealing with the person anymore. We don’t look at real, personal care and the needs of the individual patient.”

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.