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Medical Tourism Surgeries Pay Off Overseas for U.S. Employers

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Overseas trips don't come around often if at all — for Joy Guion, who decided to make the most of an opportunity she never imagined she'd have.

The native of North Carolina was boarding her first flight to Costa Rica, a sun-soaked medical tourism hot spot where she would stay in a four-star hotel with a personal concierge and a local driver.

But, the 39-year-old utility worker from Hickory, N.C., wasn’t going to Costa Rica for vacation. At 5-foot-9 and 283 pounds, Guion has “severe chronic obesity” and a family history of diabetes and heart disease. Instead, she was headed to a Costa Rican hospital for weight loss surgery.

Gary Harwell, a 65-year-old retired manager who used to work at the same plant as Guion, accompanied her on the trip to Costa Rica. He was getting a knee replacement at the same private hospital, Hospital Clinica Biblica.

And neither will have to pay a dime for treatment. Travel expenses, surgeries and post-op recovery are all being covered by the company they work for.

Guion and Harwell work for HSM, a global manufacturer of components and provider of integrated solutions to the transportation, furniture and bedding markets in western North Carolina. The company gave Guion a choice for this surgery: Pay a co-pay in the United States or outsource the procedure abroad for free.

“Nothing out of my pocket,” Guion said.

Open for Business

As players in the healthcare reform debate feud and force the temporary shutdown of the U.S. government, the medical tourism industry not only remains open for business, but continues to thrive.

The Medical Tourism Association welcomed home two of the most recent satisfied patients, Guion and Harwell, both of whom were featured as a medical tourism case study on segments of ABC's World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer, Sept. 30, and later that night on Nightline. The broadcast followed a consolidated effort of the Medical Tourism Association and the employer and healthcare provider, both MTA members, to bring the story to international recognition.

As more patients explore cost-effective ways to spend dwindling healthcare dollars overseas, trust becomes more than a handshake or a late-night Internet search, said Renée-Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association, which will gather some 2,000 industry stakeholders for the 6th World Tourism and Global Healthcare Congress, Nov. 3-6, 2013, in Las Vegas.

Rather, trust should also mean peace of mind — a daunting mental state to achieve for both employer and employee and healthcare providers involved in an overseas healthcare connection, where the potential exists for questionable parties to contract for lucrative services without being held to verifiable standards and measurements.

Stephano said the Medical Tourism Association serves as a selective platform for its members like HSM and Hospital Clinica Biblica — where reliable information related to safety and quality at healthcare facilities around the world is shared and congruent training, certification and strategies for healthcare providers, employers, facilitators and related government policy makers is offered to enhance the patient experience before, during and beyond their return home.

Catch the Wave

Guion and Harwell are among a growing wave of Americans frustrated by the rising costs of the U.S. healthcare system and heading abroad for medical procedures. Nearly one million Americans go overseas for procedures every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even with their insurance, both Harwell and Guion said each would have paid $3,000 out of pocket in the U.S. — an amount Guion said she wouldn’t have been able to afford. But in Costa Rica, they both pay nothing — their company picks up the bill.

And now, some American companies are considering outsourcing medical tourism as a healthcare option.

In the end, HSM said it saves money. Outsourcing medical care has saved the company nearly $10 million in healthcare costs in the past five years. Close to 250 of HSM's employees have traveled abroad so far for medical tourism procedures, and more are scheduled to go. (Source: ABC News )

Cost-Saving Experience

In the United States, Harwell’s knee replacement would have cost more than $50,000. In Costa Rica, the procedure costs half that amount at $23,531. In North Carolina, Guion’s gastric sleeve surgery would have cost about $30,000, but in Costa Rice, the procedure comes to $17,386. Both were placed in pristine rooms in state-of-the-art hospitals.

And when the bandages come off, both will get a bonus check for at least $2,500 from their company, a percentage of the corporate savings in insurance costs.

Guion and Harwell said they researched options and decided the benefits of affordable and quality care outweighed whatever potential risks they might have perceived. Harwell’s Costa Rican surgeon, Dr. Oscar Oeding, earned his medical degree in Latin America and received additional training in the United States at Cornell University.

Afterward, neither had complications during their surgeries and both spent the next several days recuperating at their resort hotel with daily visits from a nurse and physical therapist. Then they will fly back home to North Carolina for further post-op care — all of which is covered by HSM.

In thinking about the experience, Guion became emotional because she said she was relieved she can afford the healthcare she needs, instead of being overwhelmed by it.

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