Korea gives ‘medical tourism’ a sky-high lift

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Korea gives ‘medical tourism’ a sky-high lift

The cost of health care, and health insurance, in America has reached a level where it is cheaper to cover all the costs of flying a patient to Korea for medical treatment than to cover a comparable procedure in the United States.

And one Korean health insurance provider is taking advantage of that. For the first time, three American subsidiaries of Korean companies - Woori America Bank, Daewoo Electronics America and Daewoo International America - have purchased a Korean insurance package that will send American workers here for medical treatment for serious illnesses, according to the Health Ministry and the Korea Health Industry Development.

“Even taking in to account the various travel expenses to get to Korea it doesn’t cost half as much as medical expenses at U.S. hospitals,” said Jung Ki-tek, a medical professor at Kyunhee University.

KHIDI said the average cost of heart valve surgery in the United States is around 160 million won ($144,352), compared to around 40.1 million won in Korea. Knee surgery compares at 55.7 million won in the United States to 19.8 million won in Korea.

The insurance plan is seen as giving a boost to “medical tourism” in Korea, which is competing against other Asian nations, including Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, in offering affordable medical care to Americans who want to avoid the high cost of hospital treatments at home.

It is the first time a health insurance company has offered a package specifically designed to bring foreigners into Korea for treatment, according to Lee Young-ho head of international marketing at KHIDI.

The package covers major medical costs associated with 14 illnesses including cancer, heart disease and spinal deficiencies. The companies will pay about 30 to 40 percent less for the Korean coverage than they would pay to American insurance companies offering coverage for fewer surgeries, according to KHIDI.

The company said that upon enrolling in the plan, the 350 mostly American workers at the companies can chose between Korean and local medical treatment; those who pick the Korean option will pay 30 to 40 percent less in monthly premiums. The Korean option covers not just medical costs, but all associated travel expenses.

The deal represents Korea’s first entry into the American health insurance market, and Jang Gyeong-won, head of the global health business center at KHIDI, said that last month’s U.S. health care revision makes it a big business opportunity for the insurer. The bill provides that companies with more than 50 employees must provide health insurance to their workers and “if that is enforced, the number of U.S. companies that buy health insurance for their employees will increase drastically.”

“The three U.S. companies that bought Korean health insurance packages will lead to other such cases in the future,” Jang said.

According to Deloitte Consulting Group, the number of U.S. citizens who seek treatment in overseas hospitals will rise from 750,000 in 2007 to 6 million by the end of this year, as Americans seek to avoid skyrocketing health-insurance costs.

“Insurance payments in America have gotten to ridiculous levels,” said a spokeswoman for Deloitte’s public-relations department. “The figures speak for themselves.”

The package is being offered through an American health-insurance agency, and KHIDI is planning to launch a similar health insurance plan with United International Insurance Co.

That plan would offer Asians temporarily working in the United States the same option of flying to Korea for major medical care.

By Shin Sung-sik [jainnie@joongang.co.kr]

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