Joy Guion of Hickory, N.C., recently took her first trip on a plane – a flight to the sun-soaked Central American tourism hot spot, Costa Rica, to stay at a four-star hotel with a local driver and personal concierge – but a full-fledged vacation this is not. Because of a family history of diabetes and heart decease, Guion, 39, went to Costa Rica for weight loss surgery.

Joining her on the trip was Gary Harwell, 65, a retired manager at the same plant where Guion works, who was getting knee replacement surgery.

Their company is paying the entire bill. It gave them a choice: Choose a traditional insurance plan or outsource their care in a foreign country for certain surgeries.

Americans have long gone abroad for medical care, but now more and more U.S. companies are footing the bill.

HSM, the furniture manufacturer in western North Carolina where they both work, said that offering its workers “medical tourism” has saved it nearly $10 million in health care costs over the past five years. Close to 250 employees have traveled abroad so far, and more are scheduled to go, the company says.

In the U.S., Harwell’s knee replacement would have cost more than $50,000; in Costa Rica, it’s half that, $23,531. Back home, Guion’s gastric sleeve surgery goes for about $30,000; in Costa Rica it’s less than $18,000.

In the U.S., each of them would have had to pay $3,000 out of pocket, but in Costa Rica, they will not only get all their trip expenses paid, they’ll both also get bonus checks for at least $2,500 from their company, a percentage of the corporate savings in insurance costs.
After surgery in a state of the art facility, it’s off to a private room with an extra pullout bed for a friend or relative, all surprisingly as pristine as any you’d find in the U.S.

But medical experts do caution there are potential problems with having medical procedures done overseas.

“There have been reported documented cases of fatalities involving people going to various centers,” said Glenn Cohen, a medical ethicist at Harvard University. “There have been reported cases of people bringing back multi-drug-resistant organisms for example from India to Sweden. There are real problems if you have to sue for medical malpractice because the tort occurred abroad. And there could be real difficulties in translation or the quality of the documents you can bring back, which may make it more difficult to get good follow-up care back in the U.S.”


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