Outsourcing healthcare

Nov 26, 2008 at 6:00 am

Can we all now agree that Michael Moore was right about healthcare in America? His tragicomic 2007 movie “Sicko” was the first time many Americans realized our healthcare system was not the world leader, despite its state-of-the-art erectile-dysfunction drugs and cutting-edge nips and tucks.

Moore, who heroically gained 783 pounds to portray an unhealthy American in the film, made famous a World Health Organization report that ranked the American system 37th — one spot ahead of Slovenia — and dragged a bunch of sick people to Cuba for some free socialized medicine.

Now comes news that big insurance companies WellPoint and Aetna are jumping into the “medical tourism” business in a major way. Medical tourism is fast becoming a big industry: About 750,000 Americans traveled abroad last year to score some surgery along with their sightseeing. Medical researchers The Deloitte Center expect that number to grow to 1.5 million next year and to 16 million in a decade.

What’s driving this trend is the availability of expert medical care at a fraction of its cost in the United States. People in need of a knee replacement, say, or humor implants (some of whom I hear from regularly), are able to fly to India or Thailand, get their procedure, spend weeks recovering and sightseeing, and still spend less than the cost of the surgery alone in the states. According to a recent AP story, an $80,000 hip replacement in the United States costs only about $10,000 in Asia. (Be sure to ask about the “happy ending.”)

If this conjures images of foolhardy tightwads risking life and limb to score a black-market body part on the cheap, fuhgedaboudit. Stories of satisfied patients are all over the Web, including videos and photos of sparkling facilities, state-of-the-art technology, English-speaking staff hired to cater to Westerners, and highly skilled doctors. Countries like China, India, Thailand, Turkey and Germany offer complimentary alternative therapies that many U.S. doctors still shun. They also offer stem-cell treatments unavailable under the Bush theocracy.

Can we all now agree that Hillary Clinton was right about healthcare in America? Fifteen years after lobbyists bludgeoned her universal healthcare plan, 47 million Americans (including 8.7 million children) are uninsured. Private health insurance companies have a 30 percent bureaucracy rate compared with 3 percent for Medicare. Yup, you read that right: Government is more efficient than the market. And a new study by the Commonwealth Fund shows that more than half of Americans with chronic health problems like diabetes, heart disease, cancer and depression skip care because of cost. In Kentucky, Republicans refuse to allow even a tiny tax on cigarettes, while we all shell out billions in healthcare costs on the other end for smoking-related diseases each year ($600 per household last year). Memo to Frankfort: Don’t do it to raise revenue. Do it to save lives.

America, that’s just pathetic. Actually, it’s self-destructive. Why do we hate ourselves? It’s like we’re collectively cutting ourselves or binging and purging or pulling out individual hairs like that Goth dude in 10th grade.

But hold on there, Baba Louie. Let’s back up five paragraphs and look at that again. Who is leading the medical-tourism bandwagon? Insurance companies? The sharks who’ve successfully blocked every attempt to reform the system? The ones who’ve made sure 8.7 million children can’t afford insurance? The ones Moore showed denying or delaying legitimate claims purely for profit? The ones who’ve made Viagra and Botox household words and demonized “single-payer system,” “acupuncture” and “socialized medicine”? Really, insurance companies, don’t you feel just a little scuzzy?

So now Barack Obama will try his hand at fixing the healthcare mess, and good luck to him. With lobbyists still running amok and obstructionists like Mitch McConnell afoot, Obama isn’t even calling for radical reform. His plan is a watered-down version of the system that got us here.

But there are some promising signs. Aware the system is failing, a majority of Americans and a majority of doctors now support universal healthcare. And we can all help by getting fit. Lay off the Cheetos and jumbo Cokes and Marlboros and Triple Whoppers, and turn off “Earl” and get off the couch and do some crunches until we discover our beautiful, svelte inner selves. You know, like Michael Moore.

And if all else fails — and you’re one of the lucky ones who have insurance — check your policy. Maybe you can score a trip to Thailand for some sweet, delicious healthcare.