Wellpoint, which provides health insurance to 35 million, is starting to pilot medical tourism. The initial numbers are small - Serigraph, a self-insured printing company in Wisconsin, with 700 employees.
But when an elephant puts a toe in the water it's big news! (Elephants actually have toes, but they're inside their feet.)
The pilot allows patients to go to hospitals in Bangalore or Delhi for joint replacement and spinal fusion. Patients who go to India would have no out-of-pocket expenses or deductibles. Their travel, and travel for a companion, would be covered. I couldn't find out how much patients would save by going to India, but the self-insured employer would save between $30,000 - $50,000.
So why am I writing about this in a blog about ethics?
Here's why. Better governance of the U.S. health "system" requires better public understanding of the dynamics of the industry. Currently, public understanding is pitiably low. Employees tend to believe that their employers pay for health insurance, and don't understand that they're the ones who pay (through forgone compensation). Patients tend to believe that more care is always better care, and that what the physician recommends is ipso facto "medically necessary." Physicians tend to believe that Americans are incapable of accepting limits, and that they must therefore recommend any intervention with the slightest chance of providing benefit without considering costs. And woe unto anyone who doesn't automatically agree that "health is priceless."
Companies like Serigraph are - potentially - small communities. Workers know each other, and when labor-management relationships are good, there is opportunity for open deliberation about health care choices. Self-insured businesses can - potentially - take a truly business-like approach to health care, as by asking "what do we get for our money?" and "how do we get the biggest bang for the bucks we spend?" And large self-insured companies, even if widely dispersed geographically, can orchestrate electronic town meetings on important topics.
I can't think of any health policy mavens who recommend basing health insurance on employment status. But that's the system we have for the foreseeable future. Once five or ten self-insured employers demonstrate the potential for thoughtful deliberation about health care and can show bottom line impacts, like the Serigraph-Wellpoint medical tourism benefit, we'll see others emulating the practice. That process will contribute, at least a bit, to improved health policy literacy in the United States.