Last year, the center estimated that 6 million Americans would make medical tourism trips in 2010. But Keckley has since shaved that projection to about 1.6 million people. Still, that more than doubles the roughly 750,000 Americans who traveled abroad in 2007, the last year for which Deloitte had actual numbers.
Keckley expects the medical tourism industry to recover, as more health insurers offer the option and as more people wind up with high-deductible plans.
Health care costs for employers who offer insurance to their workers were projected to rise 9.2% this year and another 9% in 2010, according to the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. That could mean double-digit percentage increases for employees through higher premiums, deductibles or copays.
Overseas care can lead to price breaks of more than $40,000, not counting travel costs, for procedures like knee replacement surgery or heart bypasses. Insurers, or employers who provide their own insurance, can save between 50% and 90% on major medical claims, said Jonathan Edelheit, president of the Florida-based Medical Tourism Association. A lower cost of living and lower prices for medical supplies and drugs help drive down care costs overseas compared to American providers.
While employers or insurers reap much of the savings, these lower costs can be the difference between a manageable expense and a bank-breaker for patients with high-deductible plans. These increasingly popular plans can lead to out-of-pocket expenses surpassing $5,000 for individual coverage and $10,000 for family plans.
High out-of-pocket costs also are common with dental coverage, which is one reason dental care trips have proven popular.
Kunz, 47, initially doubted the potential savings she might see from visiting a Costa Rican dentist though a program offered by her insurer, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. But a little comparison shopping — with help from the insurer — persuaded her to get on a plane.
She had eight crowns replaced, a tooth filled and root canal. The work would have cost her $10,000 out of pocket back home, but she paid just $2,800 after insurance.
Ben Schreiner of Camden, S.C., would have paid the entire $10,000 deductible on his insurance policy if he had his hernia surgery done last year near home. For that reason, Schreiner, 63, had planned to wait until he turned 65 and qualified for Medicare before fixing it.
After reading about medical tourism in his insurer's annual report, the retired bank executive flew to Costa Rica and paid about $4,400, including travel expenses. Frequent flier miles covered his flight.
Schreiner said he was initially skeptical about the quality of care he might receive but reading about the doctors who could perform the surgery put him at ease.