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'I can't afford surgery in the U.S.,' says bargain shopper

By Sabriya Rice, CNN
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Shopping for cheap surgery
  • The majority of medical tourists are uninsured
  • About 878,000 Americans will travel internationally for a medical procedure this year
  • Travelers should research the legal system of the country they are visiting
  • Patients should make sure overseas hospital they're considering is accredited

See more on the risks of doctors and patients shopping for the lowest prices for health care on American Morning's series "Prescription for Waste" tomorrow 6 a.m. ET

(CNN) -- When Godfrey Davies learned he needed surgery to remove polyps blocking his nasal airways, the self-described bargain shopper set out on a mission to find an affordable surgeon. He quickly learned a good deal is hard to find.

"The total numbers they were throwing at me were just incredible. I couldn't believe it," he says.

Davies, who is semiretired from his real estate business and uninsured, says he received estimates from two surgeons. When hospital, anesthesia and incidental fees were all tallied, the cheapest price he could find in Indianapolis, Indiana, was $33,127 -- which he would need to pay out of pocket.

"I was speechless." Davies recalls. "It was absolutely out of the question financially for me to have this done under those circumstances."

Frustrated that his bargain shopping saved him so little, Davies called on family in the United Kingdom for assistance. When they told him they had found a private hospital in Wales that would perform the surgery for $2,930 [or £1,897], Davies didn't think twice.

He purchased a $768 round-trip ticket, and on March 18, he boarded a flight to the UK to have his polyps removed there at a savings of nearly $30,000.

Medical tourism on the rise

An estimated 878,000 Americans will travel internationally for a medical procedure this year, according to a report from the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. That number is expected to nearly double by 2012.

The majority of medical tourists are uninsured; however, the cost of health care in this country has become so expensive that even some U.S. health insurance companies are coordinating with hospitals overseas.

"It is curious to a number of folks as to why an established American health insurance company would be interested in medical tourism," says David Boucher, president of Companion Global Healthcare, a subsidiary of Blue Cross Blue Shield.

His pilot program launched in 2007 as a "medical travel facilitator," allowing participating employers to add an international option to the health care plans they offer to staff. The company has partnered with 29 hospitals in 14 countries and offers negotiated rates that are lower than those offered at hospitals domestically.

Boucher says employers will sometimes waive co-pays or purchase airline tickets if an individual opts to travel abroad for expensive surgery because, ultimately, it benefits everyone.

"If you can save forty to fifty thousand on an employee's surgery, it gets right to the company's bottom line," Boucher says.

Sound off: Share your health care horror stories with us

So far, only a handful of insurance companies are offering this type of service, says Jessica Johnson, director of operations for the Medical Tourism Association, an international trade organization that acts as a liaison between patients and their international providers.

Medical procedure prices

She says even with insurance though, many Americans remain underinsured, so more people are educating themselves on the options.

"It's all about affordability, quality and access," Johnson says. "Something they don't find as often here."

See this chart for price comparisons of standard procedures in the U.S. versus the prices overseas.

Before you hop on a plane

Sure, the prices are affordable. But is it safe? Experts say before you hop on a plane, there are a few important things to take into consideration.

1. Know your legal rights

"Each country has a different legal system," points out Nathan Cortez, assistant law professor at Southern Methodist University and author of a 2009 study looking at the legal risks of medical tourism.

"If something goes wrong, you don't have the same legal recourse as you have in the United States."

He advises travelers to research the legal system of the country they are visiting and at least be familiar with what their rights are if something goes wrong.

"In some countries, there are structural disadvantages to bringing about a lawsuit," he explains. "For example, if you sue a physician in Singapore and lose the case, you may have to pay the physician's legal fees."

Cortez also says to make sure that you will be able to access and bring back your medical records from the hospital you visited.

2. Make sure the hospital is accredited

Here's a list of hospitals accredited through the Joint Commission International. The joint commission inspects facilities to make sure they meet the necessary standards.

3. Negotiate locally one more time

"It's a real issue with the economics of health care," says Derek Fitteron, president and of the group Medical Cost Advocate. "But people can make it economically work by staying in the U.S."

He says his group has helped to bargain down prices for many people who want to find affordable care in their own ZIP code. When Fitteron's team investigated the cost of the procedure Godfrey Davies underwent, for example, they found that on the high end, the price should have been no more than about $17,850 in his state.

When CNN contacted the hospital about Davies' case, officials agreed.

"We inadvertently provided an incorrect quote for the consumer," a hospital spokesman wrote in an e-mail. "The actual procedure price was less than half of what we initially quoted."

Fitteron says self-pay patients are "getting really aggressively overcharged," as hospitals are trying to subsidize for money lost on things such as Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.

Davies, who is originally from Wales and has been a U.S. citizen since 2002, says he was disappointed about having to travel more than 4,200 miles for such a simple procedure. But ultimately money was the deciding factor.

"$33,000 versus $3,600 ... I can put up with a lot of inconvenience to save that kind of money."

CNN's Elizabeth Cohen contributed to this report.