Inbound Medical Tourism and Visa Reform: How Increasing Accessibility for Foreign Patients Can Decrease American Healthcare Costs

By Hunt, Alex | Houston Journal of International Law, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Inbound Medical Tourism and Visa Reform: How Increasing Accessibility for Foreign Patients Can Decrease American Healthcare Costs


Hunt, Alex, Houston Journal of International Law


I.   INTRODUCTION

II.  OVERVIEW OF INBOUND MEDICAL TOURISM IN THE UNITED STATES
     A. Medical Tourism Defined
     B. Why Do Patients Travel For Medical Care?
     C. Benefits of Inbound Medical Tourism
     D. September 11"s Impact on Immigration

III. CURRENT IMMIGRATION PROCESS FOR FOREIGN PATIENTS
     A. Visa Process for Foreign Patients
     B. Common Obstacles Encountered

IV.  POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS TO INCREASE ACCESSIBILITY
     A. New "Medical Treatment" Visa Category
     B. International Medical Visitor Agreement

V. CONCLUSION

I. INTRODUCTION

The idea of medical tourism has only recently been introduced to ordinary Americans. (1) When the average American pictures a typical medical tourist, he or she likely conjures up an image of a United States citizen who lacks adequate insurance coverage and is forced to travel overseas to seek refuge from skyrocketing prices at home. (2) In 2006, Americans caught their first glimpse at the potential rise of medical tourism, when North Carolina-based Blue Ridge Paper Products, Inc. offered an incentive in its employee benefit plan if employees elected to have nonemergency surgeries in a Preferred Provider Organization-approved hospital in India. (3) Blue Ridge eventually ended the program after an employees' union pushed back. (4) Nevertheless, the concept of lower-cost, foreign-based medical care has been an increasingly attractive and viable option for employers and insurers. (5) As a result, the number of Americans seeking medical treatment outside U.S. borders is expected to increase drastically by 2017. (6)

Although medical tourism is typically associated with Americans going abroad for lower-cost care, inbound medical tourism presents a largely untapped resource with the potential to fill and exceed the gap in revenue lost when Americans seek treatment abroad. (7) However, U.S. immigration laws create bureaucratic barriers that make it difficult for paying patients to reach America's shores or receive treatment without experiencing the aggravations of a broken visa system. (8) Patients face burdensome paperwork requirements, lengthy wait times, and visa regulations that do not give American providers an opportunity to compete in the new global medical marketplace. As the medical travel industry continues to grow, (9) and American hospitals lose revenue overseas, (10) the federal government must reform the outdated immigration code that makes it difficult to attract foreign medical travelers.

In Part II, this Comment presents an overview of medical tourism and its different forms, the benefits of reducing burdens for foreign medical visitors, and a brief history of the obstacles encountered by foreign patients after September 11, 2001. In Part III, this Comment discusses the current immigration process to enter the United States for medical treatment, including common obstacles encountered during the visa process. Finally, in Part IV, this Comment provides several solutions to attract foreign medical visitors, including the creation of a new medical visa category that enables easier access to American hospitals and clinics.

II. OVERVIEW OF INBOUND MEDICAL TOURISM IN THE UNITED STATES

A. Medical Tourism Defined

Medical tourism is defined as the "act of traveling to another country to seek specialized or economic medical care, well being and recuperation of acceptable quality with the help of a support system." (11) The term "medical tourism" was originally created as a marketing tool to entice American patients to purchase vacation packages to foreign countries that included lower cost medical or dental care. (12) The term initially encompassed only this type of "outbound" transaction. (13) Soon, however, the concept of medical tourism developed into three distinct categories: outbound, inbound, and intrabound. (14) Outbound medical tourism refers to U.S. patients traveling to other countries to receive medical care, (15) while inbound medical tourism refers to foreign patients who travel to the United States to receive medical treatment. …

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