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Save Money on Your Medical Care — Take a Trip

And you don't have to leave the U.S.

A $100,000 heart bypass could be had for as little as $32,000 at hospitals working with a facilitator (according to figures provided by BridgeHealth).

Bob Ihrie, senior vice president for employee rewards and services at Lowe's Companies Inc., led a group of five large employers who negotiated special rates with the highly respected Cleveland Clinic to perform heart, back/spine and knee/hip surgeries. While the other companies have not yet announced their plans, Lowe's has already sent 16 employees to Cleveland for surgery since the program launched on April 1, with 14 others scheduled for procedures or awaiting approval.

"We said to ourselves if we got 10 people the first year, we thought that would be a home run," Ihrie says. "Our expectations are going to be vastly exceeded."

Although the savings in surgical costs amount to just a fraction of the more than $700 million Lowe's spends each year to provide medical services to 205,000 employees and their dependents, the company expects to reap other benefits in the form of fewer postsurgical complications and higher employee satisfaction, Ihrie says.

Still, domestic medical tourism has a way to go before it becomes mainstream. According to the Deloitte study, just 8 percent of the consumers it surveyed in 2009 had sought care outside their immediate community, but 40 percent said they would consider it if their physician recommended it — or for a 50 percent cost savings.

Convenience, protection

Domestic medical travel presents fewer logistical barriers than travel abroad, says Michael D. Horowitz, M.D., a cardiac surgeon-turned-health care consultant. "You're never more than three time zones away," he says. "You have a common telephone network. You don't need a passport or a visa."

And should anything go wrong, U.S. malpractice laws apply, as opposed to the rules of a foreign legal system, he says.

Joe Holt, vice president of Auxiant Inc., a Madison, Wis., health plan administrator who manages employer coverage for 100,000 people, predicts domestic medical tourism will grow more popular as businesses look for ways to cut health care costs.

"Two years from now, I think, it's going to be pretty commonplace," he says. As it is, the health plans Auxiant administers are realizing 20 to 30 percent savings through domestic medical tourism.

Sweetening the deal

Auxiant advertises the travel option to its covered employees, sweetening the deal by offering to waive the deductible, cover travel expenses for the patient and a loved one, and pay a cash bonus, he says. And many of the hospitals have first-rate reputations.

"If the plan will pay you $2,000 to go to the Mayo Clinic to have a procedure, it's more attractive," Holt explains.

The patient response has been positive so far.

"I don't feel like anything was sacrificed," O'Keeffe says. "In fact, it was one of the best surgery experiences I've had."

Michael Haederle is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in People, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

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