In January, Serigraph Inc., a West Bend, Wis., manufacturer, will become the first U.S. company of any size to embrace medical travel or medical tourism, offering employees the option of having certain nonemergency operations, such as joint replacement, in India. The company will pay all expenses, including travel and lodging for a companion. The incentive for employees is that they don't have to pay a deductible—typically $1,000 to $5,000—or the hospital copay, which would be 10 percent to 20 percent of the charges.
Last May, I went to India and Singapore to explore the trend of growing numbers of under- and uninsured Americans heading to both places and other foreign climes to take advantage of package prices for hip replacement, heart valve repair, spinal surgery, and other elective procedures that can be 80 percent less than the sums charged by U.S. hospitals. To cite one expensive example, heart bypass surgery can easily run up a $70,000 to $133,000 bill at a U.S. center, compared with an average of $7,000 at Indian hospitals catering to westerners. An uninsured patient I interviewed extensively in India paid a total of about $25,000 to have both hips and one knee replaced, including airfare and incidentals. He easily could have paid more than $125,000 at a U.S. hospital. And there are plenty of similar cases of huge price differences.