Thursday, May 13, 2010

Savings Through Free Trade - Medical Travel

Medical travel is the second (and most talked about) of the four modes of trade in health services envisaged under GATS. It's also popularly called medical tourism, a term the industry wants to change, to stress the more serious treatment aspect over any incidental entertainment or sightseeing.

While the first mode telemedicine described earlier is an alternative for some doctor office visits, medical travel does the same for some costly inpatient hospital procedures. Its potential was touched upon in our December 10 overview. Here's a further and updated look.

The main reason for outbound US medical travel are cost savings, which can be up to 90% for a destination country like India. This holds even for procedures performed by US or UK trained and certified doctors in JCI accredited hospitals, with outcomes at least as good as back home. Naturally, only patients who have strong financial or other incentives (not just to save their insurers or employers money) will opt to go.

So far almost all US medical travelers have been the self-payers, either the uninsured or those coming for cosmetic or dental procedures not covered by their insurance. This is a sliver, estimated by Deloitte to be 878,000 in 2010, of the total potential clientele. After all, even among the uninsured who are 15% of the populace or 45 million, less than a third can afford to pay the still significant sum up front for travel and treatment abroad.

Medical travel's ability to significantly address US health costs will be unlocked only if the largest payers (private insurers, employers and public agencies) sign on. They can induce their patients to voluntarily opt for medical travel by passing on some of the savings. But they haven't done so yet. Why?

Private insurers and employers are most worried about legal and PR exposure if some surgeries abroad end badly (which is inevitable, even if complications occur at much below US rates.) These payers fear multimillion dollar lawsuits in which capricious juries may side with their "home boy" plaintiffs regardless of the merits and the precautions taken. Even a few "jackpot" awards can wipe out the entire savings, not to mention any fallout from adverse publicity. In analogy to G.W. Bush paraphrasing the IRA on terrorism, trial lawyers just have to get lucky once, while defending payers have to win (almost) 100% of the time. Given the almost random outcomes of jury trials, successfully defending all cases is a tall order, and in any event involves high legal costs.

Prior safeguard or dispute resolution agreements are of limited value as courts may rule that patients cannot waive their basic right to sue in US courts. Then there's the problem in getting patients to volunteer through financial rewards, like passing along a portion of the savings to them. Even when it's purely voluntary, such financial incentives can be portrayed in malpractice lawsuits as coercive or unduly influencing patients.

There are also other reasons why private insurers hesitate to embrace medical travel:
  • Fear that the lure of financial gain may cause patients otherwise hesitant or on the fence about undergoing procedures to go for them along with the medical travel option. This can increase expenses and offset some of the savings. (This is largely fixable through a proper screening, eligibility and incentive design process.)
  • Collective inertia among the oligarchs (the major insurers) who feel that their launch of such an initiative will trigger similar actions by their rivals. Thus their potential gains are reduced through the resultant competitive activity, so the effort isn't worthwhile.
  • Where insurers are merely administering plans and passing on the costs, say to the self-insured employers, they may have little incentive to push such innovation.
  • Insurers are aware that health reformers will push them to lower rates, and are holding such options in hand to use only when these exigencies arise.

The government agencies like CMS have neither legal exposure nor many other private payer concerns as an impediment to the medical travel option. Juries identifying with taxpayers are less likely to award huge payments to plaintiffs that come out of public funds. Public agencies also lack the motive to profit from misdeeds or to cut corners to save money that can form the basis for punitive damages.

But the government and the lawmakers have very different, political and protectionist reasons for staying clear of medical travel. US providers portray foreign medical travel in protectionist terms as loss of American business and jobs. They also raise concerns (sometimes ignoring the facts) about the quality of treatment overseas, and lack of recourse of aggrieved patients to US courts. Their most potent weapon of course is their lobbying and financial clout with Congress and the administration. It's primarily for this reason that you don't hear anyone in CMS, HHS, the rest of the Obama administration as well as in Congress seriously considering the medical travel option.

All this may change as sky high prices, domestic supplier shortages, the health costs related crises in federal and the states budgets, and public awareness trumps the current political nexus. If the government acts effectively on medical travel this will not only save taxpayer funds and benefit publicly funded patients, but also pull along the private payers on this. Here's how:

  • Medicare and Medicaid should create protocols to select and qualify foreign providers, identify procedures to be covered, offer financial and other incentives for patients to volunteer, track and disseminate quality and outcomes information, redress treatment problems, etc.
  • Private insurers and employers strictly following the same (or better) practices and procedures will get legal cover from adverse outcomes beyond their control. Besides, if the government agencies are doing it, then private payers will also be shielded from adverse publicity or allegations of insidious motives.
  • The lawmakers and the administration should pass measures reducing legal risks and costs for public and private payers adopting and implementing this option in good faith. These steps can include laws to restrict jury shopping, requiring arbitration by bodies set up for the purpose, limiting damages and imposing malpractice caps. Such laws will need to be carefully crafted to avoid being struck down as unconstitutional by the courts.

So what are the expected savings from medical travel other than for cosmetic, dental and medically unnecessary procedures? Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati and I looked at all the major surgical procedures and identified 30 that are suitable for medical travel to places as far as Asia. These cost at least $25,000 each, are commonly performed, involve standard techniques, have quick recovery times, and are typically one-time surgeries.

In 2007 these 30 procedures cost a total of $300B. Assuming 25% of patients of these procedures opt for medical travel, the direct savings are $57B annually. The data sources, assumptions and basis for calculations are described in the footnote below. This does not include the effect of lower US prices as a result of competition, or medical travel for smaller procedures to Mexico from border areas like California and Texas. It also excludes possibilities from ideas going as far back as 1993, like hospital ships catering to coastal cities like New York.

Over the next 10 years the savings come to $950B, about half in public funds. Looked another way, these direct savings in public funds from medical travel alone meet half the projected cost of the recently enacted health care reforms.

Footnote: Data sources, assumptions and calculations leading up to the projected savings from medical travel:

1) The online query system HCUPnet (part of AHRQ in HHS) is used to get the statistics on all hospital procedures. This includes the aggregate charges for all hospital stays, their breakdown by procedures under the simplified CCS categories, the number of each principal procedure and mean charges per procedure. These are for the latest available year (2007).

2) HCUP only has hospital charges (billing), not the actual payment to the hospital, which is less than what is charged. On the other hand HCUP charges do not include the physician (surgeon, anesthesiologist, etc.) fees that make up almost a fourth of the total payment, which we need. So we need a factor to reduce the charges to actual estimated payments, and then add back payments to physicians.

3) To get the factor in (2) above we compare the aggregate civilian hospital charges for all stays nationally ($1,032B obtained from HCUP) with the actual hospital expenditures obtained from the NCHS (CDC / HHS) Health publication, 2009 ($696B from Table 127, less $38B for VA hospital expenses, equals $658B). This gives us the overall conversion factor of 64% to convert charges into actual payment received by hospitals. We then take physician fees to be added to be 30% of hospital payments, or 23% of the total payment.

4) From the list of the top 200 procedures in HCUP nationally we select 30 that meet our selection criteria. These include a minimum cost of $25K in the US, no need for a subsequent procedure / trip, short recovery time allowing the patient to return to the US within a month, and only highly standardized procedures (e.g., excluding cancer treatment where better US care may be available.)

5) Our total cost of overseas treatment is based on package rates (including air travel and hotel stay while recuperating) to the most popular JCI accredited medical travel destination hospitals in India with US or UK certified / trained physicians. Savings for other destinations like Singapore, Turkey or Costa Rica will be lower.

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