The Travel Trend in Health Care | Healthcare of Tomorrow

When Kathryn Carlisle, a bookkeeper for Yukon Electric in Anchorage, Alaska, found out she needed a hip replaced in 2012, she was startled that her employer was proposing surgery at Arise Austin Medical Center in Texas. The operation, rehab and a two-week hotel stay would cost her nothing. The benefit would pay for her daughter to go along and even include $1,500 in spending money.

Yukon is in the ranks of employers turning to medical travel within the U.S. as a way to rein in health care costs. Home improvement retailer Lowe’s pioneered the trend in 2010 by partnering with the Cleveland Clinic to provide cardiac procedures for free to any of 200,000 employees (plus their dependents) willing to travel. Boeing has a similar plan with the clinic for over 75,000 U.S. employees. PepsiCo sends workers to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for cardiac and complex joint replacement surgeries.

Providers, chosen for their excellent outcomes, offer attractive value because they do a large volume of surgeries, and patients avoid costly complications and readmissions. The hospital typically charges a flat amount for a bundle of services instead of billing for each test, pill and specialist. The arrangements save companies up to 40 percent of usual costs. Little wonder they’re happy to sweeten the deal for employees by forgoing copays, waiving deductibles and throwing in travel and caretaker expenses.

“It’s a win-win-win,” says Stephanie McCray, director of network development for BridgeHealth Medical, a Denver-based surgery benefits firm that negotiates such arrangements between providers and companies (and works with Yukon Electric). “We only contract with the cream of the crop – hospitals that are in the top quartile on performance measures.”

BridgeHealth’s other clients include a number of national corporate giants; partnering hospitals such as Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Kalispell Regional Healthcare in Montana, and McBride Orthopedic Hospital in Oklahoma City provide a menu of surgeries, from ACL reconstruction to hysterectomy. Last year, the nonprofit Pacific Business Group on Health launched a plan for employees of several large companies, including Walmart and Lowe’s, to receive free joint replacement at one of several hospitals, among them Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. According to Olivia Ross, the program’s associate director, more than 700 employees have so far used the benefit.

Employees do have the option of paying normally to stick close to home. Being away from familiar support systems while recovering is a downside, and there are concerns about patients transitioning back to local doctors for follow-up. Sunil Bhoyrul, medical director of bariatric surgery at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California, a BridgeHealth provider, uses technology to stay connected to his remote patients as they work to shed weight once back home. A mobile app monitors their activity and other health measures and feeds it back to the medical practice. “Wherever they are on the planet, we know what they’re doing and can message them,” Bhoyrul notes.

That said, BridgeHealth says 98 percent of patients who have traveled say they would recommend the option to a colleague. Carlisle was so satisfied that she went to Texas to get artificial knees in 2013, and recently flew to Arizona Spine & Joint Hospital in Mesa to have her other hip replaced.

Excerpted from U.S. News’ “Best Hospitals 2016,” the definitive consumer guidebook to U.S. hospitals. Order your copy now.