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Americans Taking Alternative Approaches to Health Care

August 17, 2009 05:30 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
People are getting creative in their pursuit of affordable health care by traveling abroad for care, attending free clinics and buying medicine from foreign countries.

Will Travel for Care

Some Americans have found that traveling to Mexico for medical procedures can cost thousands of dollars less than they would pay in the United States. It's an especially enticing prospect in these tough economic times, even for those with health insurance, according to Tim Gaynor of Reuters. Bob Ritz, a retired police officer, tells Gaynor, "I pay $400 a month for my health insurance, and it's still cheaper to come to Mexico."

As the debate over health care continues, many Americans are finding alternative solutions to the high cost of care at U.S. hospitals and doctors' offices. Gaynor reports that according to a study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, approximately 1 million Californians "seek medical, dental or prescription services in Mexico each year."

But the trend extends far beyond Mexico, as Associated Press writer Dale Gavlak explains. The Middle Eastern country of Jordan is making medical tourism a priority, rolling out an online campaign and hosting visits by U.S. doctors and insurers in an effort to capitalize on the lucrative market. Some U.S. insurance companies are getting involved; by allowing policyholders to seek treatment internationally, insurers can "waive all deductibles and copays, offer to cover travel costs ... and still save tens of thousands of dollars," Gavlak writes. 

But how can foreign countries offer such inexpensive care?

According to Marla Dickerson in an article for the Los Angeles Times, there are several reasons. Salaries for doctors and cost of living are often lower. Some countries' government-funded care means hospitals "don't have to shoulder the unpaid bills of uninsured patients as U.S. hospitals do." Finally, costs associated with malpractice are lower.

Background: Free and retail clinics draw crowds

Back at home, Americans are flocking to free and retail clinics to save a buck.

Retailers including Wal-Mart, Walgreens and CVS provide health clinics in their stores, according to CNN Money writer Parija B. Kavilanz. Called retail clinics, the in-store health clinics are less expensive than a doctor's office, usually overseen by nurse practitioners and are "a lucrative niche market for merchants." Retail clinics draw both insured and uninsured patients seeking quick care for minor health issues or tests for blood pressure or diabetes, according to Kavilanz.
Americans are also taking advantage of free health clinics, according to Jessica Cejnar of the Desert Dispatch. The Barstow Kids Care Fair in Barstow, Calif., is one example that offers screenings and immunizations for kids before school begins. Sponsors for this year's fair are bracing for larger than usual crowds; more than 500 people are expected to attend. "People are losing their job and losing insurance," John Rader of Barstow Community Hospital told Cejnar. In order to avoid the high cost of pediatricians, parents are taking their kids to fairs such as this one.

Related Topic: Purchasing drugs outside the US

According to a congressional estimate, up to $50 billion over a decade could be saved if drugs manufactured in the U.S. could be "reimported from Canada and other nations where price controls on pharmaceuticals hold down costs." Certain members of Congress are rallying in favor of reimportation. The Detroit Free Press reports that Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., are among those in favor.

Historical Context: The lure of alternative treatments

The 1970s and '80s saw a surge of cancer patients seeking therapies and treatments abroad that were not approved in the U.S., including laetrile, "a controversial alternative treatment made from apricot pits," Barron H. Lerner, a teacher of medicine and public Health at Columbia University, wrote in an essay for The New York Times.

Actor Steve McQueen was perhaps the most famous recipient of the supposedly miraculous cure. He died only months after secretly traveling to Rosarita Beach, Mexico, to receive a potent cocktail of pancreatic enzymes, dozens of vitamins and minerals, and several other treatments along with laetrile, according to Lerner.

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