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Overseas Care Becomes Option for U.S. Firms

November 17, 2006
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Traveling out of the country for elective surgeries has for years been an option for individuals without health insurance. But with constantly rising health care costs, it is becoming an attractive alternative for employers.

Executive search firm Stanton Chase and various auto dealers are among a short list of large employers interested in making use of out-of-country medical benefits, according to United Group Programs, a regional health insurer in Boca Raton, Florida, and Planet Hospital, a company that arranges medical travel.

For the past six months, the insurance company has offered customers a network of doctors and hospitals in India, Singapore and Thailand. Four employees—two from self-funded companies and two from companies offering mini-medical plans that offer limited benefits—have gone overseas for heart and back surgeries, says Jonathan Edelheit, a vice president with the insurer. The companies do not want to be identified, he says.

Sending employees overseas for medical care, known as medical tourism,

has drawn the interest of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III. Planet Hospital president Rudy Rupak says he met with the governor and administration officials October 16 to explain how the company could provide for state employees high-quality, low-cost medical care at hospitals around the world. Hospital administrators from India and Thailand and a minister of tourism from Singapore gave presentations aimed at allaying fears that medical care in those countries is inferior to care in the United States.

"The issue was that of quality," Rupak says. "A lot of people who were reluctant switched sides by the end of the program."

Traveling across oceans and time zones for elective surgeries is garnering new attention as the industry grows and large employers consider it as a way to save money. Not all the attention has been good.

In September, Blue Ridge Paper Co. of Canton, North Carolina, which funds its own health care for its 2,000 employees, made headlines when it canceled plans for an employee to go to India to have gallstones removed. The president of the employee’s union, United Steel Workers International, had objected, saying health care in India is below American standards.

Companies have expressed concerns that sending employees overseas will harm their public image. That is the chief reason why large clients at United Group Programs did not want their names to be known, Edelheit says. The same is true for clients of Mercer Human Resource Consulting, says David Frazzini, a principal at the firm. Concerns about image should ease as more employees travel overseas for treatment.

"The first cases will be used as learning cases," Frazzini says.

Jeremy Smerd

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