Adding medical travel to the employee benefit menu can be a plus both for the employer and for its corporate travel department.
One obvious benefit – the additional air and hotel volume associated with medical travel count toward contract performance minimums and rebate thresholds.
And one less-obvious benefit – travel department input into medical travel helps control costs.
HR meets T&E
“Medical travel crosses the boundary between travel and human resources,” said Farrah Walsh, president of medical travel arranger Minerva Journeys.
“HR knows medical benefits and the advantages of selecting medical centers based on outcomes and costs of medical care. Travel knows about managing the travel element.
“Combining that expertise can give employees of the company the best possible medical care while keeping travel costs under control,” said Walsh, who will be a featured panelist at the Well-Being and Medical Travel Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., June 20-21.
Traveling for treatment
While traveling to receive top-flight medical care isn’t a new concept, companies tend not to think about sending employees much farther than the nearest hospital for elective procedures like heart bypass or knee replacement surgeries.
But that’s changing. Loews, PepsiCo and other major companies have already cut deals with Mayo Clinic and other medical centers to treat employees from around the country.
Minerva Journeys and other medical travel facilitators are seeking to expand the scope of medical travel to destinations around the globe, including Costa Rica, Hungary, India and Thailand. Minerva also has several U.S. hospitals in its network.
The idea is the same – spend a little on travel to save a lot on high-quality medical care.
“Even if you stay within the U.S., there are significant cost savings from selecting treatment in one state versus another or even one hospital versus another in the same state,” Walsh said. “People don’t realize how dramatically costs for the same procedure can vary from one hospital to the next.”
The economics can be attractive. A colonoscopy to screen for colorectal cancer can cost upwards of $3,500 in the U.S., Walsh said. The same procedure costs $350 in Costa Rica.
Whether that price difference is enough to merit sending employees to Costa Rica or elsewhere for the procedure depends on the company, its employee benefit design and its health coverage costs.
The corporate mindset
“Medical travel is a way to provide employees with more options for health care. The company saves on care costs and employees save on co-pays,” Walsh said.
“The hurdle is showing companies how they can integrate medical travel into their employee benefit plans without changing plan providers.”
Looking beyond cost
Medical travel isn’t only about cutting costs, according to Walsh. It is about improving the quality of medical care that employees receive as well.
When it comes to high-performance procedures such as a coronary artery bypass graft, hospitals and surgeons with more experience tend to do a better job. One reason that centers of excellence like the Mayo Clinic or the University of California Los Angeles produce better outcomes than the typical community hospital is that they perform hundreds of such operations every year.
High-volume, high-quality centers in the U.S. are also-rans compared to cardiac specialty hospitals in India, according to Walsh.
“The top medical travel hospital in India does hundreds of [cardiac procedures] every month,” Walsh explained. “They have some of the most experienced surgeons and surgical teams in the world. Their outcomes are second to none and their pricing is unbelievable by U.S. standards.”
The typical coronary artery bypass graft that costs $50,000 at the Mayo Clinic or $90,000 at UCLA costs $4,000 in India or $10,000 in Costa Rica, she said. Even when the costs of international travel for the patient and a companion are added in, the cost savings are still significant.
“If a procedure costs more than $4,000 to $5,000, you will probably start to see price savings by going to another country,” she said. “As the procedure gets more expensive, you see more cost savings without losing medical quality.”