GRAY – The concept of medical travel is something that has been both overlooked and underestimated by many people while our nation struggles to remedy its health care crisis and failing economy. In actuality, these two crises have jump-started a fast-growing industry of traveling for medical care.

At a recent conference in Costa Rica, I saw first-hand just how extensive and sophisticated international care has become, with advanced facilities and significant infrastructure in place for U.S. patients.

It makes sense. International business is fundamental to the world economy, and the next phase of international business is health care.

With the economy in turmoil, businesses are being forced to look at every expense. One of the largest and most obvious expenses is the cost of health care.

When the economy is doing well, few businesses look at saving money by shifting costs in health care to employees. However, businesses are now being forced to do that because the increases in their insurance premiums are simply not sustainable.

Insurance premiums are going up so quickly because the actual cost of health care in this country is simply too high. Employers want options.

So do workers. In the past, if an individual had an expensive procedure lined up, he or she might have been able to tap into the equity in the home to pay for their share of the care, including satisfying any out-of-pocket expenses. However, with the decline in home values and the stress on family budgets, that game is over.

When both businesses and individuals are forced to look for alternatives in the health care arena, they find that many exciting opportunities open up. Consider this:

If I needed a hip replacement and had it done in Maine, it would cost roughly $30,000. If I were paying the bill, I would look for alternatives. I wouldn’t have to look too far to some of the leading medical centers in the country just 100 miles away in Boston, but how much would I really save? Would it be $5,000 or $10,000?

The exact amount might be hard to calculate, since the cost of procedures at U.S. hospitals is hard to determine.

By contrast, international hospitals are publishing their prices — something that American hospitals refuse to do. So I know that I could go to at least two International Joint Commission accredited hospitals in Costa Rica — a two-hour flight from Miami — and the total cost of my procedure, recovery and stay would not exceed $15,000. As a bonus, I would get to recover during the winter in a tropical setting.

The reality is that every major insurance carrier in our country is looking at medical travel. Some have already implemented the piece into the benefit design. Large employers have done the same.

Many large employers (companies with more than 50 employees) are self-insured, meaning they hire either an insurance company or a third party administrator to administer their medical benefits, and purchase reinsurance on claims that exceed a certain threshold.

Some of these employers are getting very creative with the medical travel piece, waiving deductibles, coinsurances and copayments to essentially remove all financial obstacles for patients looking to travel for medical care. Some also are including cash incentives for the patient and for a traveling companion.

Companies are not offering these benefits strictly for financial reasons. Many are doing it for the quality of care, which should be foremost in the mind of any patient or purchaser of health care, just as it would in any other exchange for services.

Some interesting statistics have been published by Deloitte, a company that is widely respected as a top provider of business solutions.

In 2009, 3.3 million Americans traveled abroad for health care and spent approximately $80 million. Deloitte projects that by 2017, a staggering 23 million Americans will travel abroad for health care.

Medical travel will be the mainstream in the future. Doesn’t it just make sense? Competition results in better performance in any and all endeavors.

It is time that patients, employers and insurance companies demand better performance from their physicians and better patient care in a hospital setting, and all at a far more reasonable price.