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Will U.S. law hurt tourism?

From the print edition

When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the country’s health care reform law last week, Costa Rica’s private medical sector paid close attention. 

The Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as “Obamacare,” will extend health insurance to approximately 40 million uninsured U.S. citizens.

The Supreme Court decision could hamper the growing global medical tourism industry, a key tourist market in Costa Rica. According to the Council for International Promotion of Costa Rica Medicine (PROMED), in 2010, the country counted 36,000 medical tourists, who generated $288 million in revenue. 

Numbers have not yet been announced for 2011. But PROMED estimates 12 percent growth, putting the number at 40,000 tourists. At a medical tourism conference in April, organizers predicated the industry could begin attracting 100,000 medical tourists by 2013.

Health officials acknowledged those estimates might need to be tempered with U.S. health care reform a reality. Barring a repeal of the law by Republican lawmakers, the full extent of the reforms will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

The medical tourism industry’s philosophy centers on providing quality care that’s more cost-efficient because it’s received outside the United States. But with more citizens obtaining insurance, health care in the U.S. becomes more affordable.

However, the law will not cover certain popular medical tourism procedures, including elective surgeries and dental care. Dental treatments represent almost 40 percent of medical tourism, while plastic surgery represents another large percentage. 

At the same time, medical tourism promoters have been researching ways to provide care for procedures often covered by insurance.

One initiative that is gaining traction is corporate tourism. The program negotiates with health insurance companies working with other private companies to create deals where employees travel abroad for treatment. 

“If we see health care reform possibly reducing the individual market for medical travel, we could have a huge opportunity for corporate buyers for health care,” PROMED Executive Director Massimo Manzi said.

While “Obamacare” might cause individual tourist numbers to stagnate, businesses still have the potential to bring planeloads of tourists down for treatments. The key to convince companies and their employees to receive treatment in Costa Rica is to provide incentives, said Bob Repke, president of Global Medical Conexions, a corporate medical tourism facilitator. 

Repke has spoken on the law at medical tourism conferences in Costa Rica. The June 28 Supreme Court ruling is fresh, and he and the rest of the industry haven’t had time yet to digest the law, which has more than 2,000 pages. However, he insists medical tourism promoters should see many positives in the outcome.

“We’ve been seeing an increase in medical travel in the last five years, and we still haven’t penetrated the market fully,” Repke said, adding that opportunities also include markets in the Caribbean and the rest of Latin America.

Besides corporate tourism, another boost could come from those who are impatient with the new system. In Canada, a country with universal health care, patients can wait up to two years to receive non-life-threatening procedures, such as knee or hip replacements. Patients could choose to receive surgery faster in Costa Rica. 

Repke said those same long lines will form in the U.S., except in larger numbers. Plus, medical tourism’s reputation has strengthened over the years, and Repke believes in the future more foreigners will take interest in the idea.

Published Friday, July 6, 2012 3:09 PM by Zinnia Q.


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