By Laura Carabello
The repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been met with considerable market uncertainty. As the transition gets underway, many Americans will be scrambling to access affordable, quality care.
Fortunately, the international medical travel industry –“Travel for Treatment” — may finally gain the attention it deserves from the American public and U.S. employers. Experts predict that the number of Americans traveling abroad for medical care or episodes of treatment is expected to increase 25 percent annually over the next decade.
Medical travelers are likely to come from every market sector: the growing ranks of uninsured individuals, self-insured employers facing higher healthcare expenditures, disenfranchised Medicaid beneficiaries, as well as Medicare enrollees with high out-of-pocket expenditures and the loss of coverage for preventive care.
Once “minimum essential healthcare coverage” is no longer mandated, the burden of payment will transfer onto healthcare providers and systems that will be forced to continue cost shifting onto the backs of paying customers.
Fewer insurance companies will be willing to underwrite coverage in the exchanges. In fact, many will leave the individual marketplaces altogether because of the potential loss of federal subsidies for both beneficiaries and insurance companies themselves.
Burdened by hefty cost-shifting, more Americans will be forced to pay out of their own pockets for surgeries or treatments in the U.S. Those who can afford a plane ticket will find it increasingly attractive to travel outside the country for quality, affordable options, such as joint replacement, cardio-thoracic surgery, oncology, bariatrics, and a host of other medical procedures, including treatment for Hepatitis C.
Low-Income (Medicaid) and Seniors (Medicare)
For Medicaid beneficiaries who remained optimistic that their home state would offer expanded coverage, their prospects look dim. The unraveling of the ACA will leave millions of the poorest and sickest Americans without insurance. Many states may either abandon Medicaid expansion or be forced to significantly redesign their programs to ensure that individuals below 400 percent of the federal poverty level can receive affordable healthcare coverage and services.
While these low-income families may not have cash reserves to fund expensive care in the U.S., they might be able to gather the resources to access needed surgeries overseas – and pay less than half of the US rates. Those who have emigrated from Latin American countries, in particular, will take advantage of opportunities to travel to their homelands to gain access to care that is substantially less expensive, and in a familiar setting.
The 57 million senior citizens and disabled Americans enrolled in Medicare could also benefit from accessing international medical travel. Under a full repeal of the ACA, seniors face higher deductibles and co-payments for their Part A, which covers hospital stays, and higher premiums and deductibles for Part B, which pays for doctor visits and other services. Medicare enrollees may also lose some of their free preventative benefits, such as screenings for breast and colorectal cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The opportunity to access quality care at lower costs – plus prescription drugs that are sold at far lower price points outside the US – present attractive options.
Healthcare will continue to be driven through employers, and cost pressures will push high-deductible plans, risk-based contracting and consumerism. In the United States today, even a negotiated, discounted rate for a total knee replacement at a local hospital may well exceed $45,000, $60,000, or more. The bottom line for self-insured employers – the coverage model that now dominates the marketplace: even after factoring in the cost of travel and accommodations for the patient and the companion, as well as waiving deductibles and co-pays as incentives to program adoption, the savings on surgical procedures such as joint replacement are significant.
Employers will also be more likely to send workers to emerging COEs outside the country in light of the many partnerships that are underway between US providers and foreign hospitals. These collaborative programs are bringing American ingenuity, sophisticated technology and advanced levels of care to institutions throughout the world.
Quality and safety standards at many institutions are now equal to or exceed US benchmarks. Many foreign hospitals are accredited by Joint Commission International, an extension of the US-based Joint Commission. Select hospitals outside the country adhere to US clinical protocols.
In fact, one organization that serves self-insured employers — North American Specialty Hospital in Cancun — even offers U.S. surgeons with US malpractice insurance who perform pre- and post-operative care in the US and then travel to Cancun for surgery. This ensures continuous engagement and continuity of care.
The ACA has contributed to hospitals experiencing higher volumes of insured patients, but those volumes would drop with the law’s repeal. It could also cause fewer people to keep prescription coverage, which would be modestly negative for the pharmaceutical industry.
Experts believe the majority of primary care physicians are open to changes in the law but overwhelmingly oppose full repeal, according to a survey published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Insurance coverage for the 20 million people who obtained insurance from the exchanges sparked growth in patient numbers for hospitals, which offset lower payments. Without this, hospitals can expect deepening economic problems. This could lead to higher prices, and greater impetus among individuals to seek medical care outside of the U.S.
Key Destinations for International Medical Travel
With the growing ranks of uninsured, medical travel options are likely to emerge as a critical solution to healthcare cost woes. Hospitals and providers in nearby locations such as Latin America – known as the LAC Region – are likely to become destinations of choice: less expensive travel expenses, reduced language barriers, and cultural familiarity. Individuals and employers will require guidance in terms of choosing the right providers and determining costs to overcome the challenges that lie ahead.
Laura Carabello is a medical travel consultant to healthcare providers worldwide and US employers. She also serves as executive editor and publisher of Medical Travel Today and www.US DomesticMedical Travel.com.