Uninsured Americans traveling to Panama for health care
Sunday, September 23 2007 @ 09:51 AM EDT
Contributed by: Don Winner
With roughly 47 million Americans lacking health insurance, millions more under insured and U.S. health care costs skyrocketing, many can no longer afford medical care in the United States.
About half a million Americans traveled overseas for more affordable health care in 2006. And that number is rising at double-digit rates, spurred by easier travel, Internet communications and a growing support network from health travel agencies to blogs, according to the recently formed Medical Tourism Association in West Palm Beach.
U.S. employers are starting to catch on. Some now provide health insurance that covers workers who get medical care abroad. United Group Programs of Boca Raton, for instance, offers the coverage to help employers trim rising health costs for their workers, according to tourism association reports.
Hospitals worldwide are vying for the surging business, too. Many seek certifications to boost their allure for Americans and other foreign patients. The Joint Commission International, an arm of the nonprofit group that accredits U.S. hospitals, accredited more than 120 hospitals from Brazil to Turkey in the past few years. And it just opened offices in the Middle East and Asia to handle rising requests.
At least one hospital in Panama is seeking the commission's accreditation: the year-old Punta Pacifica Hospital affiliated with the prestigious Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore. The 65-bed Punta Pacifica expects international patients to account for as much as 80 percent of its business within several years, up from 30 percent today, chief medical director Rolando Bissot said.
Visitors at the new hospital get high-tech attention. In the lobby, patients can use a computer touch-screen to check in, either in English or Spanish. New medical equipment, mainly from General Electric, includes a "4-D"sonogram, so pregnant women can take home a DVD that shows their unborn child moving, rather than a photograph.
Americans aren't the only foreigners checking in.
With U.S. entry visas harder to get since Sept. 11, 2001, some patients from Latin America and the Caribbean who might have sought care in South Florida are turning to Panama.
"The problems with visas in the United States have turned out to be a benefit for us," said Pana-Health's Ford.
Panama revved up its marketing for American patients in 2003 when about a dozen U.S.-trained doctors joined with a local travel agency to promote their services internationally. The doctors formed a review committee to vet credentials of applicants and since then have expanded to about 100 professionals. Inquiries to their Web site are rising by about 30 percent a year, Ford said.
Most Americans contacting the group are older than 40, not Hispanic and lack insurance for their medical procedures. Those who come to Panama generally travel with a friend or relative and stay about a week. Most pay cash for treatments that range from face lifts to in-vitro fertilization. Doctors' fees tend to run about half the cost and hospital stays 80 percent less than U.S. rates, Ford said.
"Other countries may be cheaper, but we offer state-of-the-art equipment and care," said Ford, his BlackBerry device near his computer.
Many Americans living in Panama laud the quality of Panama's top doctors, even bringing their U.S. relatives down for treatment.
Lauretta Bonfiglio, a U.S. restaurateur who relocated to the mountain town of Boquete, recently helped her mother from Montana get a root canal. U.S. dentists had turned down the treatment, citing her mother's age as complicating insurance coverage. Bonfiglio made arrangements with a dentist in Panama and paid $250, far less than a root canal would cost in the states.
In Panama City, retiree Catherine McCabe said she found an able replacement for the dental specialist she had used in Beverly Hills, Calif. She's thrilled with the diabetes care her husband receives. Four specialists attended to him for more than two hours recently. And she's delighted to routinely receive the cell-phone and home numbers of her Panamanian doctors, who will make house calls if needed.
"You're not a number. They look you in the eye and care about you as an individual," she said. "I don't find that in U.S. health care."
Doreen Hemlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 305-810-5009.
Find video interviews with retiree Catherine McCabe and Dr. Richard Ford along with scenes from inside Punta Pacifica Hospital.