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See The World, Save On Health Care

Imagine you could save more than 50 percent on a major medical procedure without risking safety and, at the same time, get a free trip to an exotic locale.

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That's the business model behind medical tourism, which matches American patients looking to save money with foreign doctors and hospitals qualified to do the work.

Individual patients seeking healthcare solutions beyond our borders is nothing new.

What is new is that Corporate America, facing rising medical costs, is considering sending employees overseas, and paying the bill.

This week on Street Signs I'm following the story of Annie Bujakowski, a life long skier whose knee went out more than a decade ago. Four surgeries later, she still has trouble walking. Skiing is out of the question. Annie and her husband, Mark, work for Snow Summit Ski Corporation in Big Bear Lake, California, where her mother, Jan Evans, is head of risk management. Evans spends much of her time seeking ways to save money on the company's healthcare plan. With the help of Wells Fargo , she discovered PlanetHospital, a company started by Rudy Rupak in 2002 after his wife fell ill while they were overseas. Rupak was so impressed with the quality of care they received--at a pittance compared to the cost in the U.S.— and so a business was born. PlanetHospital is one of a handful of companies which act as a concierge between companies or patients and foreign doctors and hospitals. For example, in Singapore, where quality of care is ranked far higher by the World Health Organization than care in the U.S., heart bypass surgery can cost $18,500, compared to $130,000 stateside.

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Here's Rupak discussing what started PlanetHospital.

Rupak has sent 3,000 patients overseas.

He's traveled the world finding the best places for certain procedures: heart operations in Cyprus, knee and hip replacements in Singapore, cancer treatments in South Korea, dental work in Costa Rica, plastic surgery in Panama. In Singapore, where Annie was set to have her knee replacement done, Kamaljeet Singh Gill of Parkway Health says, "In 2007, 400,000 foreign patients came to Singapore seeking medical treatment." The hospital has been compared to being in a four-star hotel, complete with a choice of gourmet menus. Annie Bujakowski said that, for once, "hospital food was good."

Here's Rupak discussing the biggest obstacles in selling the idea of medical tourism to Corporate America.

Why does it cost so much much less overseas?

Mostly because of very low malpractice insurance rates. There are fewer lawsuits, but that also means there are fewer legal protections. Planet Hospital provides an extra catastrophic policy in case an overseas operation goes very wrong, but the policy has a fairly low limit by American standards. Still, he says it is extremely rare for a follow up operation to be necessary, far rarer than the norm in the U.S.

Yet Rupak explains here that U.S. insurance companies are reluctant to sign on:

Medical tourism is already having on impact on the cost of care in America.

Rupak says one patient took the estimated costs of having a procedure done overseas to his doctor and asked the doctor to match it. He did. Some hospitals in states like Texas are reaching out to companies in California, offering procedures for less, even with air fare and hotel bills thrown in. For the moment, Snow Summit says the overseas option is voluntary, but Jan Evans says there could come a day when it may become mandatory for employees if they want Snow Summit to foot the entire bill. "The world is global in its economy." says Evans. "And this is the globalization of medicine."

Annie Bujakowski's reaction to being told about the overseas option? "What? I get to go to Singapore AND get my knee fixed? YEAH!" She also received a $3,000 cash bonus for being the company's first guinea pig. Follow our stories this week as we find out how her surgery went. Not everything went according to plan.

Stay tuned...

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