Domestic Medical Travel as Healthcare Cost Solution 

by Laura Carabello

shutterstock_277608839Companies today face mounting pressure to provide appropriate healthcare coverage despite staggering costs. Rising to the challenge, a growing number of business owners and corporate executives have sought strategies to help avoid substantial monetary penalties for non-compliance under reform’s new regulations and, concurrently, curb healthcare costs.

In this environment, medical travel — leaving one’s home state or region to travel to a center for excellence (COE) for high-quality, more affordable surgical procedures or episodes of treatment — has quickly become the go-to benefit option for many of the nation’s leading self-insured companies. This now includes the country’s largest “giant” employers as well as mid-sized companies and smaller organizations.

Following the Leaders

While there are no authoritative statistics regarding employer adoption of domestic medical travel programs, it is estimated that 15 percent of the nation’s 50 largest employers now offer this benefit option.

Businesses of every size are taking note that companies like Walmart, Lowe’s, Jet Blue and others have begun offering U.S. domestic medical travel programs to their employees, covering the medical treatment and expenses as well as expenses for a required caregiver. The message: Medical travel is a viable strategy for cutting healthcare costs.

A key driver of medical travel is the increased demand for outpatient surgery. The number of outpatient procedures done in the U.S. tripled between 1999 and 2005. Advanced medical technology has allowed patients to go home just hours after a procedure rather than several days. Outpatient surgeries account for about 75 percent of medical travel procedures, according to experts, in part because the out-of-pocket payments are relatively high in the U.S.

Domestic Medical Travel

In response to its growing popularity, domestic medical travel has spawned a new breed of health management company that gives employers access to the country’s top hospitals and doctors — at a predictable cost.

The select hospitals and preferred networks involved in these programs must adhere to strict benchmarks for positive outcomes, low hospital-acquired infection rates, high patient satisfaction, advanced staff training and skills, thorough patient data capture and other factors. Doctor costs, hospital expenses and fees are part of a single, transparent price.

Employer Adoption

While large employers have dominated the domestic medical travel marketplace, many mid-sized and small employers are growing more receptive to this concept, and aggregating their purchasing power through coalitions and other multiple employer welfare arrangements.

Employers of all sizes build in incentive programs to prompt workforce uptake of the benefit, including waiving co-pays and deductibles and covering both patient and companion/caregiver travel expenses. One of the drivers is the documented track record of a COE to achieve better results for specific procedures, mitigating complications, redo’s and readmissions — which can be very expensive in terms of hard costs, time lost from work and the health of employees.

While quality of care has traditionally been the primary deciding factor in choosing a hospital or physician for a specific treatment or procedure, the cost of healthcare has become an increasingly important factor for consideration. Having access to geographically specific healthcare cost information will also be key to empowering patients to make more informed decisions regarding whether or not to travel for care and how to plan for it financially.

Laura Carabello, founder and principal of CPR Strategic Marketing Communications, and editor and publisher of Medical Travel Today and U.S. Domestic Medical Travel™.

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