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Companies explore overseas healthcare

To cut its insurance costs, a US papermaker plans to let workers seek medical care abroad in 2007.

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Carl Garrett, a paper-mill technician in Leicester, N.C., is scheduled to travel Sept. 2 to New Delhi, where he will undergo two operations. Though American individuals have gone abroad for cheaper operations, Mr. Garrett is a pioneer of sorts.

He is a test case for his company, Blue Ridge Paper Products, Inc., in North Carolina, which is set to provide a health benefit plan that allows its employees and their dependents to obtain medical care overseas beginning in 2007.

"It's brand-new and nobody's ever heard of going to India or even South Carolina for an operation, so it's all pretty foreign to people here," says Garrett. "It's a frontier."

Garrett's medical care alone may save the company $50,000. And instead of winding up $20,000 in debt to have the operations in the US, he may now get up to $10,000 back as a share of the savings. He'll also get to see the Taj Mahal as part of a two-day tour before the surgery.

His two operations could cost $100,000 in the US; they'll run about $20,000 in India.

With US health insurance costs soaring, cash-squeezed companies such as Blue Ridge and poor states such as West Virginia are considering affordable plans that may require their employees to travel to India, Thailand, or Indonesia.

Critics say that limited malpractice laws in foreign countries makes such travel risky as well as the prospect of spending 20 hours on an airplane after invasive surgery. Despite the concerns, "medical tourism" is morphing into "global healthcare."

"Global healthcare is coming and American healthcare, which is pricing itself out of reach, needs to know there are alternatives" in order to improve, says Alain Enthoven, senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy in Stanford, Calif.

The average American hospital bill was $6,280 in 2004, twice that of other Western countries, according to the National Coalition on Health Care (NCHC) in Washington.

The cost savings have prompted a few hundred Americans this year to fly to India, Jakarta, or Bangkok for serious medical conditions, receiving heart stints and hip replacements. But most of the some 150,000 "medical tourists" nationwide go for a tooth filling or plastic surgery and a week at a sunny beach resort where the dollar stretches like lycra.

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