Cost and Quality of U.S. Health Care Increasingly Drives Americans Abroad

With the issue of health care reform poised to once-again move front and center in the national political debate thanks to both the 2012 presidential election and the scheduled Supreme Court review of the Affordable Care Act in March, some nasty facts about the state of health care in the U.S. are once again in the spotlight. Increasingly Americans are opting to go abroad for medical procedures to combat the outrageous price of care in their own country and because medical error is a rising problem in America.

Medical Error a Serious Cause for Concern

In 2006, the Institute of Medicine determined that 1.5 million Americans are harmed each year by medication errors alone. Corollary studies place the value of the additional medical care required by such errors at $887 million in 2000, a figure that has undoubtedly climbed right along with the cost of health care. Estimates vary widely, but it is likely that 100,000 or more patients die each year as a result of medical error, with more than a million injured in non-drug related mistakes including surgical error.

Medical Debt a Leading Cause of U.S. Bankruptcies

Researchers at Harvard have determined that in 2007, 62 percent of all personal bankruptcies filed in the U.S. were directly attributable to medical expenses. What was startling, however, is that 78 percent of the people who filed for bankruptcy had medical insurance at the beginning of their illness, with 60.3 percent of those covered by private policies, not Medicare or Medicaid. In 2010, more than 1.5 million Americans filed for bankruptcy. In the same year, the cost of cancer care in the nation climbed to $263.8 billion annually.

Not surprisingly, statisticians at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found a strong tie between a cancer diagnosis and bankruptcy. As compared to the general population, cancer patients are twice as likely to file for personal bankruptcy. The Duke University Medical Center’s studies indicate that even cancer patients with insurance faced monthly out-of-pocket costs that average $1,266.

Not only do medical costs on this level wipe out personal savings, destroy home equity, and obliterate retirement options, but the stress prevents healing. Many people with long-term illnesses say their number-one concern is not getting well, but the financial and emotional burden their condition places on their loved ones. These are all factors in a broken health care system that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed by the Obama Administration in 2010 was designed to counteract.

Health Care Reform Has Raised Insurance Rates

Although the Obama administration has consistently maintained that the substantive cost-saving benefits of the health care reform package will be felt when the law takes full effect in 2014, the truth is that in the short-term, the legislation has increased the cost of medical care and insurance in the U.S. With mandated benefits and new restrictions cutting into their profit margins, insurers raised their premiums by 9 percent in 2011, a figure three-times that of the rate of inflation, and the greatest insurance price hike since 2005.

Medical Tourism an Increasingly Attractive Option

It is hardly surprising that some Americans are opting to leave their country to seek medical care. The Medical Tourism Associations says that in some instances, medical travelers can save as much as 90 percent on the cost of a single procedure while accessing care equal to or greater than what is available in the U.S. in terms of quality and effectiveness. For instance, a heart bypass surgery in America costs, on average $144,000. In Colombia, the same procedure is $14,802 and in India, just $5,200.

By 2012, medical tourism in Asia is expected to produce $4.4 billion in tourist income dollars, with Malaysia, India, and Turkey being particularly popular destinations for traveling patients. In 2012, Singapore expects to treat a million patients from foreign nations, while neighboring Malaysia estimates it will have 1.9 million annually by 2020. In an interview with the New York Daily News, the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said that most of the patients now headed abroad are middle-class workers who can’t afford to be treated in their own country.

The option of treatment abroad has become increasingly attractive due to improved medical standards in destination nations, and by the fact that many foreign doctors are actually trained in the U.S. Over the last decade, more than 400 organizations in 39 nations have received accreditation from the Joint Commission International, an affiliate of the body that accredits American hospitals.

Health Care Will Be a Major Topic of Debate in the 2012 Election

All of these factors will undoubtedly figure in the political debate on health care as candidates vie to claim the White House in November 2012. The Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of key points of the Affordable Care Act will also be an important indicator of the future of health care reform in the nation. Currently about 53 percent of voters support repeal of the law, with 40 percent of those strongly in favor of scrapping the effort.

The provision of the law requiring all Americans to carry health insurance by 2014 is a particularly hated provision of the legislation and is the basis of the Supreme Court appeal. Critics maintain that the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution does not give Congress the right to compel citizens to buy a product in the public market place, i.e. health care insurance. Approximately 63 percent of Americans surveyed single out the insurance mandate provision as the aspect of the law they most oppose.

It is arguable if the long-vaunted health care reform effort has indeed improved the care Americans receive. Skyrocketing costs tied to personal bankruptcies, frightening instances of medical error, and the growing trend of people leaving home to seek better, more affordable care abroad would seem to indicate it has not. The discontent this situation has caused, tied to the hardships of three-years of recession in the U.S. will figure heavily in the coming election as Americans are not only seeking, but demanding, real change and real improvements.