Like some 47 million other Americans, Nancy Sowa (pictured) doesn’t have health insurance. So when her doctors last year told her she needed a total hip replacement, the office manager for a non-profit did what a growing number of U.S. citizens are doing: She headed abroad. At Wockhardt Hospital in Bangalore, India, the 56-year-old was put up in a hospital “suite” far swankier than what she would typically find in the U.S., with a computer, fridge, cable TV, sitting area and an extra bed for her travel companion.
More to the point, the two-hour surgery in July, performed by an orthopedic surgeon trained in the U.S. and Australia, was a success. Four months later, the Durham, N.C. resident is feeling like her old self again, going for long hikes and planning her next vacation. The final tab for the procedure, including rehabilitative therapy and round-trip airfare for two? $12,000. That’s a fraction of the $45,000 to $90,000 she had been told the surgery would cost at home.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do the surgery in the United States,” says Sowa. “I didn’t have to explore taking out a second mortgage or tapping family members because I had this other option.”
One looming uncertainly is, what happens if the U.S. passes legislation enacting universal health care coverage? Less people might travel overseas if they are covered for care — even if it’s more expensive — in the U.S., says Saroja Mohanasundaram, CEO of Newton, Mass.-based medical tourism facilitator Healthbase. People might still travel if certain procedures like bariatric and cosmetic surgeries aren’t covered, she says. “There may be wait lists in the U.S. or other issues,” she adds.
As far as Nancy Sowa is concerned, she’s not convinced universal coverage would have changed her mind about going to India. “Even if I had insurance, I’m not sure I would have made the choice to stay in the U.S.,” she says. While that may be good news for corporate benefits administrators seeking to trim costs, it may concern medical tourism critics who don’t want to see the trend become a fixture in U.S. health care.