As Washington searches for ways to tame the country's escalating health care costs, more insurers are offering networks of surgeons and dentists in places like India and Costa Rica, where costs can be as much as 80 percent less than in America.
Until recently, most Americans traveling abroad for cheaper nonemergency medical care were either uninsured or wealthy. But the profile of medical tourists is changing. Now, they are more likely to be people covered by private insurers, which are looking to keep costs from spiraling out of control.
The four largest commercial U.S. health insurers - with enrollments totaling nearly 100 million people - have either launched pilot programs offering overseas travel or explored it. Several smaller insurers and brokers also have introduced travel options for hundreds of employers around the country.
Growth has been slow in part because some patients and employers have concerns about care quality and legal responsibility if something goes wrong. Plus, patients who have traditional plans with low deductibles may have little incentive to take a trip.
But a growing number of consumers with high-deductible plans, which make patients pay more out of pocket, could make these trips more inviting.
Health care costs for employers who offer insurance to their workers were projected to rise 9.2 percent this year and another 9 percent in 2010, according to the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. That could mean double-digit percentage increases for employees through higher premiums, deductibles or copays.
High out-of-pocket costs also are common with dental coverage, which is one reason dental care trips have proven popular.
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