Medical Tourism Starting To Appear in Health Coverage

By Kathy Gurchiek Jan 16, 2008
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Eleven percent of surveyed organizations cover medical tourism in the health care they offer to full- or part-time employees, according to a new report from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP).

Medical tourism involves traveling to countries such as India, Thailand or Singapore for treatment at respected medical facilities as a way to save money. According to an HR Magazine report, interest in it is attributed to globalization, affordability of foreign travel, lower medical fees and improved in overseas care.

It is one among a litany of health care services covered by their employers, according to members of the IFEBP and by the International Society of Certified Employee Benefit Specialists in the United States. Members were surveyed in October and November 2007, and 400 responded.

Ninety-seven percent said their employer covered emergency room visits for life-threatening conditions, inpatient hospitalization, inpatient and outpatient surgeries, inpatient and outpatient visits to physician offices, imaging and laboratory services, intensive care, urgent care, and ambulance service.

The survey was part of the foundation’s Survey & Sample Series. “Due to the rising costs of health care benefits, employers are challenged to find a balance between cost-effective care and the level of benefits needed to successfully recruit and retain valuable workers,” said Julie Stich, information specialist at IFEBP, in a press release.

Findings included who was covered under employer health coverage and the various kinds of coverage offered. The survey also looked at exclusions to health care, such as experimental medicine and procedures, which nearly 70 percent of those surveyed said are not covered by their employer.

Among alternative therapies covered by 13 percent or more of those surveyed:

  • Chiropractic care, 82.3 percent of corporations and public employers covered this in 2007; 86 percent covered it in 1999.
  • Acupuncture/acupressure, 33.7 percent in 2007 vs. 14 percent in 1999.
  • Massage therapy, 13.5 percent in 2007 vs. 8 percent in 1999.
  • Nutrition therapy, 12.8 percent n 2007 vs. 5 percent in 1999.

When adjusted to include professional service firms and multiemployer plans in the 2007 figures—two groups not surveyed in 1999—the percentage of those offering coverage of chiropractic care (80.5 percent) acupuncture/acupressure (33.5 percent) and massage therapy (13.3 percent) dipped slightly. However, the percentage among those four groups covering nutrition therapy inched upward (13 percent).

In 2007, midwifery/nonhospital birthing centers was covered by 23.8 percent of corporations, public employers, multiemployer plans and professional service firms. It was not asked about in the 1999 survey.

This was the first year medical tourism was asked about in the survey.

Other health coverage areas provided by anywhere from 50 percent to almost 93 percent of organizations surveyed included, but was not limited to, substance abuse treatment; mental health services; chronic fatigue syndrome; donor costs of organ transplants; durable medical equipment; prenatal and well-baby care; annual physicals; vasectomies; and speech-language hearing therapy.

In a benefits survey of 590 HR professionals that the Society for Human Resource Management released in June 2007, 29 percent said their employer covered acupuncture/acupressure, and 11 percent cover nutritional therapy. Nineteen percent cover alternative/complementary medical treatment, and 6 percent covered experimental or elective drugs, according to SHRM.

Nearly all (99.7 percent) of members the IFEBP surveyed said their organization offers health benefits to full-time workers (30 or more hours/week), and half do so for part-time workers (minimum of 20 hours/week). Only 3 percent offer them to seasonal, temporary or part-time workers.

“Employers need to regularly look at the benefits they offer,” Stich said, “to make sure they’re reasonable yet current and competitive.”

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