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Employers May Sponsor Overseas Surgeries

If you get your health insurance on the job, and you need major surgery, you may soon have the option to have your procedure performed in India or Thailand -- saving both you and your employer a bunch of money.

Or then again, you may not. Several companies have sprung up to facilitate employer-sponsored medical tourism. But the concept has been a bit slow to catch on.

One of the companies offering overseas surgery packages is Florida-based United Group Programs. It's been administering employer health insurance plans for 39 years. And it's been looking for a good way to slow the rise in health-care spending for just about as long.

So when officials heard that hospitals in developing countries such as Thailand and India were offering high-quality services at cut-rate prices, they decided to look into it.

"What we found was that Americans can go overseas and get health care for about 80 percent less than in the U.S., and actually get better care in nicer hospitals," says United Group Programs Vice President Jonathan Edelheit. "And more amazingly, there are doctors over at these hospitals that actually went to school and practiced here in the U.S., so it's almost as if you're not going to a foreign country and a foreign doctor, you're going to see an American doctor overseas."

Using only a hospital in Thailand, the company has found that the savings can be dramatic. A heart bypass that would cost $80,000 in the United States costs about $16,000, according to Edelheit.

He says the quality is equal, and in some cases superior, to what's available in the United States.

"Hospitals here are more like Motel 6s," he says. "When you go (to a hospital) overseas, you're walking into a five-star hotel, like a Ritz Carlton. You have the highest ratio of registered nurses to patients, you have doctors that went to school in the U.S. and practiced here in the U.S. You just get waited on hand and foot."

Edelheit says that so far, his company has about 50 clients offering overseas surgeries as an option for patients. None of those companies, however, would agree to have their names made public, fearing negative publicity.

Edelheit concedes it's been a bit of a selling job. But he says he's optimistic employers will be able to get their employees to buy into the concept "because a lot of these employees will be able to take a vacation while they're over there and go to the beach and go visit some of these exotic locations."

Even some large employers are exploring the offshore surgery concept. Arnold Milstein, chief physician at the consulting firm Mercer Health and Benefits, testified before the Senate earlier this summer that he's been asked by several Fortune 500 companies -- which he won't name either -- to look into the feasibility.

He says so far he's been able to confirm that the price differential is, in fact, as large as has been advertised, and that the quality is demonstrable.

"Almost all the hospitals Americans would consider for a program like this are hospitals that have so-called Joint Commission International accreditation, which is the international affiliate of the very same quality accreditation organization that, for example, Medicare uses," he says.

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