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Patients With Passports: Is Medical Tourism Legal?

US Passport
By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on August 29, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The health care industry is in a state of flux, and not just over the Affordable Care Act. Medical tourism, when patients travel to foreign countries for medical care, is a burgeoning trend. In 2014, 1.4 million Americans embarked on medical tourism, and that figure is expected to climb.

Some travel abroad to get procedures that have not been FDA approved here in the U.S., such as stem cell therapy and assisted suicide. But medical tourism is not just for the rich and risky. It is now the option of choice for lower income and under-insured patients that can only afford a $12,000 Thai heart bypass instead of a $210,000 one here in the U.S.

The largest U.S. health insurance companies will now cover medical tourism costs, including healthcare and travel fees for patients and companions. Anthem Blue Cross, BlueShield, UnitedHealth Group, WellPoint, Humana, and a host of others will cover these costs for customers. Should you go for your next procedure?

Patients Without Borders

The first question many people ask is "Is this legal?" The short answer is yes. Laws are enforceable by jurisdiction. Just like a California law doesn't apply in Alabama, an American law doesn't apply in China. Many procedures that are illegal here are perfectly legal for American citizens to get overseas.

For instance, Switzerland is a common destination for those seeking assisted suicide. Finding yourself too far down the kidney transplant list for your liking? India is the preferred destination for kidney transplants. Yes, their doctors are great. But they also have a plethora of kidneys available, since the gray market there is very healthy. Kidney's are bought for about $4,000 each, and about 2,000 are sold every year.

Medical Malpractice and Medical Tourism Insurance -- a Match Made in Bureaucratic Heaven

As the old saying goes, 'it's all fun and games, until someone gets hurt'. If a surgery, or recovery, goes awry, most hospitals will not cover the cost of complications. U.S. medical malpractice laws will rarely apply to overseas defendants, and when they do, the judgment awards are low. Medical tourism is specifically not covered under most standard travel insurance agreements. Not surprisingly, the insurance industry has pounced on this gap. Patients can now buy medical tourism insurance for this purpose. For example, you can buy a $1 million policy for about $6,000, but most settlements are based on an arbitrator's decision.

An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure

Medical tourism is legal in almost all respects, primarily because there is very little regulation, and therefore very little legal protection. However, there are ways to protect yourself before you go. There should be a host of written agreements to sign from the health care facility, the group arranging the trip, health and/or travel insurance agreements, and potentially many others.

Make sure that you understand all contracts you are signing, or will be signing, by asking for copies well in advance. Have a local health care attorney read them over so that you know exactly what you are consenting to before you sign, arrive, and go under the knife in a country that potentially speaks a foreign language. Recovering in peace will be much more enjoyable knowing that you have secured your rights in advance.

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