More (Medical Travel) To Come

Rick Johnson, for HealthLeaders Media , November 18, 2008

Another mid-sized U.S. employer is fed up enough with the soaring cost of healthcare to seek an international alternative. In January, Serigraph, Inc., a self-insured Wisconsin-based specialty printer, will begin offering trips to India for employees who need joint replacement, upper and lower back fusion, and other elective surgeries.

If employees choose to receive care at JCI-accredited Apollo Hospitals Group facilities in Bangalore or New Delhi, Serigraph will waive the deductible and coinsurance. Not only is Serigraph willing to pick up 100% of the medical costs, but it will also cover travel expenses for the patient and a companion.

Like a lot of employers these days, Serigraph isn't hiding its frustration with the U.S. healthcare system. Linda Buntrock, senior vice president of human resources at Serigraph, told the Star Tribune's Chen May Lee, "This is a challenge to the U.S. medical system to say, 'What's wrong with this picture, guys?' "

Do you think she's followed the recent coverage in the Wall Street Journal about Scarborough, ME-based supermarket Hannaford Bros. Co. getting counter offers from U.S. providers after it offered medical travel benefits?

"It will be interesting to see the competition for customers in the market for medical services and how many employees in our medium-sized company take advantage of this opportunity once we have the program in place," says Buntrock.

Serigraph's benefits provider, Indianapolis-based WellPoint, Inc., put together the "pilot program" that it says could result in thousands of dollars in savings per patient.

"More and more employer clients have been asking about access to foreign providers as a means of reducing their claim expenditures," Samuel Nussbaum, MD, WellPoint's chief medical officer, says in a prepared statement. "Medical tourism is a promising option for improving access to affordable, quality healthcare."

Indeed, U.S. employers are taking a hard look at what they are spending on healthcare, and as the New York Times noted yesterday, hundreds of companies across the country are moving employees into high-deductable health plans. When given the choice, employees have yet to embrace these consumer-driven plans, but soon many are going to find no other option.

While companies try to get employees to take more responsibility for their healthcare costs, they very well could adopt the tactics of Serigraph and Hannaford by adding medical travel benefits.

By providing another benefit to help workers stretch their healthcare dollars, these companies have little to lose by making the pitch. If the employees choose the medical travel option, they stand to save themselves and the company significantly. And, perhaps Serigraph will see a similar reaction to the threat of the medical travel benefit that Hannaford's has.

So far the returns by these early adopters are only going to push more companies toward adding medical travel options. After all, considering the status quo, what do they have to lose?

Rick Johnson is senior online editor of HealthLeaders Media. He may be reached at
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