Hospitals oppose ‘medical tourism' bill

by Justin D. Anderson
Daily Mail Staff

Legislators are considering a bill providing incentives for state employees to go to other countries for medical procedures.

But state officials are not sure if the incentives would save any money.

The West Virginia Hospital Association says such a measure could financially harm the state’s hospitals and put patients in danger.

Nationally, it’s becoming a popular way of getting cheaper health care.

According to the National Coalition on Health Care, an estimated half-million Americans engaged in “medical tourism” in 2005.

Ten state delegates, including House Majority Leader Joe DeLong, D-Hancock, recognize the trend.

They are sponsoring a bill that authorizes the Public Employees Insurance Agency to waive co-payments and deductibles and provide round-trip airfare and lodging

expenses to the foreign country where the patient has the

procedure done.

The bill is meant to reduce the state’s costs for medical care. The bill says the incentives would be offered only if the foreign procedure were cheaper than the procedure here.

The bill is pending in the House Banking and Insurance Committee.

“PEIA is unsure of the overall potential for cost savings,” said spokesman Diane Holley. “In some cases, there’s potential for the state to lose money.”

Holley said it’s the travel expenses provided in the bill that gives PEIA officials pause. Officials haven’t even really crunched the numbers on this bill yet, partly because they weren’t asked to.

The state already receives substantial discounts from health care providers, Holley said.

Besides the travel costs, there would be the administrative costs for PEIA, she said. And then there are the liability issues of sending people to different countries for what PEIA has heard are between 30 and 50 percent cheaper procedures.

Tony Gregory with the hospital association said they’re most concerned with patient safety. If a patient goes overseas and has surgery done, for instance, there’s little follow-up care because local physicians would have trouble communicating with foreign ones, he said.

The notion of such “medical tourism” flies in the face of Gov. Joe Manchin’s push for citizens to lead healthier lifestyles, according to the hospital association.

“Over the last couple years, West Virginia’s governor has taken some positive steps in promoting wellness and personal responsibility as a way to reduce the long term costs of certain types of chronic illness,” Gregory said. “A proposal such as this would really, in the long run, add to those costs because of the lack of continuity of care.”

Patients harmed by a foreign physician would have little or no recourse if they wanted to file a medical malpractice suit, Gregory said.

Fresh from surgery, a patient might not get the rest they need if they’re tempted to go out and see the sights of where they’ve been sent, Gregory said. And long flights aren’t the best things for surgery patients in recovery.

From a financial standpoint, the hospital association believes the bill is counterproductive to Manchin’s “Open for Business” way of thinking.

Simply put, the state’s hospitals would lose business if patients were encouraged to go overseas for procedures that can be done here.

“Certainly, there would be some challenges hospitals would face if that were the case,” Gregory said.
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