Wellpoint soon will offer some medical travel benefits

by CHEN MAY YEE ,  StarTribune.com | 2008-11-13

Would you get on a plane to India for surgery? What if your employer made it worthwhile?

As more and more Americans travel abroad for cheaper medical care, health insurers and employers have mostly watched from the sidelines.

Now the nation's second-biggest health insurer, Indianapolis-based Wellpoint Inc., is dipping a toe in the medical tourism marketplace.

Starting in January, Wellpoint will offer employees of Wisconsin-based Serigraph Inc. the option of traveling to India for nonemergency procedures such as joint replacement surgery. Serigraph will waive the insurance deductible and coinsurance for employees who agree to go, paying all medical costs as well as travel expenses for the patient and a companion.

"This is a leap of faith, obviously, to say if you go to India, we'll pay for the whole shebang," said Linda Buntrock, Serigraph's senior vice president of human resources.

"But the cost difference is so monumental."

Knee replacement surgery that costs between $60,000 and $70,000 in the United States can be done in India for $8,000 to $10,000, said Jill Becher, a Wellpoint spokeswoman.

Wellpoint joins a handful of U.S. insurers offering medical travel benefits.

Can Minnesota insurers be far behind?

Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group Inc., the biggest U.S. health insurer by revenue, said it doesn't yet have an international travel program but is seriously looking into it.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and HealthPartners said they do get asked about medical travel, but no Minnesota employers have taken the leap. Medica said its clients have not asked about the option.

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