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Thailand is in network? Employers and insurers embrace medical tourism

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Like some 47 million other Americans, Nancy Sowa (pictured) doesn't have health insurance. So when her doctors last year told her she needed a total hip replacement, the office manager for a non-profit did what a growing number of U.S. citizens are doing: She headed abroad.

At Wockhardt Hospital in Bangalore, India, the 56-year-old was put up in a hospital suite far swankier than what she would typically find in the U.S., with a computer, fridge, cable TV, sitting area and an extra bed for her travel companion.

More to the point, the two-hour surgery in July, performed by an orthopedic surgeon trained in the U.S. and Australia, was a success. Four months later, the Durham, N.C. resident is feeling like her old self again, going for long hikes and planning her next vacation.

The final tab for the procedure, including rehabilitative therapy and round-trip airfare for two? $12,000. That's a fraction of the $45,000 to $90,000 she had been told the surgery would cost at home.

I wouldn't have been able to do the surgery in the United States, says Sowa. I didn't have to explore taking out a second mortgage or tapping family members because I had this other option.

With Americans able to save 50% to 90% by going to places like India, Thailand and Costa Rica, the uninsured aren't the only ones considering the medical tourism option. Increasingly, U.S. employers, faced with soaring health care costs that are expected to rise another 9% in 2010, are sending their workers overseas for care. Many of the companies exploring the option are small- to medium-sized firms that are self funded meaning they're responsible for paying out their own health care claims.

Insurers like Blue Cross Blue Shield are getting into the act, too. For good reason: Even when employers or insurers waive co-pays and deductibles and throw in airfare and spending money for the patient and a companion some of the typical incentives offered to employees who have medical procedures done abroad they can still save $40,000, $50,000 or $60,000 per surgery, depending on the procedure.

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