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Medical Tourism To France, Other Countries Surges Due To Costly U.S. Health Care

(KPIX 5) -- France, the number one tourist destination in the world for its gastronomic pleasures, beautiful chateaux and sites such as the Eiffel Tower, is also getting a huge influx of tourists for another reason these days – to save a ton of money on their medical bills.

Humboldt County resident Bruce Ryan, construction manager at the Blue Lake Casino Hotel run by the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe,  needed surgery for a debilitating and painful rotator cuff injury

He could have gone to Stanford Medical Center, but he had another plan in mind: "No, we went to France - to Toulouse France - and did it. It was great," laughed Ryan.

The Rancheria's health care plan gives employees the option to travel abroad for treatment. "We do have high quality care but then also at the same time, we also have the most expensive care in the world," said health plan Director Jack Norton.

Norton has seen the cost of care skyrocket for his employees.   A few years ago, the Rancheria decided to become self-insured when its commercial health insurer demanded double-digit premium rate increases.

Norton knows if he can't keep prices down, all employees will see higher co-pays and skimpier benefits in the future. To keep costs down, he added the medical travel option and Ryan decided to give it a try.

"It paid for everything," said Ryan.

Ryan could have chosen from any number of countries for medical care, but after doing research, the 59-year-old settled on France.

The plan provided Ryan with two round- trip tickets to Toulouse on Lufthansa Airlines. Lufthansa is contracted with the plan's medical facilitator in France to take special care of the American patients both to and from their surgery to make sure they are comfortable and all their needs are met.

Ryan also got a driver, a translator, and medical facilitator Carine Hilaire.

"You should come to France," said Hilaire via a teleconference line from Toulouse. She works for France Surgery - a private company located in Toulouse. France Surgery is linked to 120 hospitals and more than 1,500 specialists across the French Republic.

U.S. patients and their American doctors consult with the French specialists and medical teams before they even get on a plane. The French doctors also do follow-up on their U.S. patients once they return home.

"We never leave our patient alone," explained Hilaire.

As for Ryan, the plan paid for a top surgeon at an approved private clinic  as well as malpractice insurance policy; a physical therapist; 21 days at a hotel, and sight-seeing tours as well as all meals.

"The food in Toulouse was out of this world. We ate like royalty, I'll tell you," said Ryan.

Ryan did not pay a single dime. $7,000 worth of deductibles and copays were waived.

The Blue Lake Rancheria tribe ended up saving about $12, 000. "That's roughly 35% of what it would have cost to do the surgery in California," said Norton.

On top of that, 10% of the savings - $1,200 dollars - went directly into Ryan's 401k plan. "It's pretty astonishing," he said.

The savings can be anywhere from 10 percent to 75 percent, according to Renee Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association.

Stephano gets dozens of calls a week from employers and employees asking about medical travel.

She says American hospitals should watch out: there's now high quality competition for U.S. patients. Employers are looking for excellent care at a lower cost and they're finding it abroad.

"Because of the increased competition, they're going to have to become more price sensitive," said Stephano.

As for Ryan, he's recovered ahead of schedule, he's back on the job, and his California doctor is impressed.

"They did an excellent job," said the construction manager.

Ryan also saved additional money - - by not having to buy groceries and gas in the U.S. His only regret is U.S. hospitals are not doing more to keep American patients here.

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