As the debate on cost savings in health reform rages on in Washington, D.C. and across the nation in Town Hall meetings, employer (group) health plans, many now engaging in an annual benefit review for the forthcoming calendar year, are increasingly including “medical tourism” provisions designed to decrease costs of expensive surgeries for covered participants. In the past, both ends of the health care spectrum, the uninsured and the very wealthy, have sometimes sought medical care overseas, often combining the travel with a vacation to an exotic locale. The costs for certain procedures in locations like India, Costa Rica and Mexico can be as much as 80 percent lower than identical procedures performed in the United States.

The number of employers with high-deductible health plans is increasing, as employers seek to control costs for their employee benefit programs, forcing patients to pay more out of pocket for their care. Many of these plans are self-insured but are administered by large insurers. A growing number of major insurers are now offering coverage options for foreign-provided care in both the high deductible plans, as well as their more traditional group health offerings. The Associated Press reports that knee replacement surgery in the U.S. averages $50,000, while the same surgery in Costa Rica costs about $11,500, and only $7,000 in India. Concerns about the quality of care provided outside of the United States are being met with published studies of good surgical outcomes, Internet-based marketing touting the credentials of participating medical professionals, assistance from some health insurers in locating quality health care providers and highly favorable word-of-mouth reports from former patients.

According to the Associated Press, the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions is projecting that more than 1.6 million Americans will travel abroad for medical care in 2010. While the health plan savings may be considerable for the patients, their employers and insurers will likely benefit even more. Cost savings in employee health benefits can make a significant impact on business overhead, so more employers are looking at medical tourism benefit options. And, there are even a few reports of American care providers who are attempting to meet the foreign competition by offering price breaks of their own.