Miami hospitals seek ill, rich foreigners

Marketplace Staff Jul 30, 2009

Miami hospitals seek ill, rich foreigners

Marketplace Staff Jul 30, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: While Congress hammers out the last, most difficult, details of health-care policy including how to pay for it. Some hospitals in Miami are trying something a little different on that score. They’re getting the money to come to them. By treating wealthy foreigners. From Miami, Marketplace’s Dan Grech has more.

DAN GRECH: Nineteen-year-old Juan Lei is from Peru. Last year he crunched his ankle in a car accident. The doctors in Peru recommended surgery. Juan Lei wanted a second opinion.

JUAN LEI: So I came to the hospital here in Miami to see what the doctors say about my ankle.

Dr. Kevin Berkowitz specializes in foot and ankle injuries at Mount Sinai hospital. Using an MRI, he found Juan Lei had sustained ligament damage.
He prescribes physical therapy.

KEVIN BERKOWITZ: So I’m going to write a script for him for therapy, voy a escribir otra receta por terapia. And then we’ll schedule you to come back in about three months. Todo bien. Entiende?

Dr. Berkowitz says he learned Spanish as a resident working in Miami’s clinics.

BERKOWITZ: If you go to medical school here, you’re either going to incorporate and speak Spanish, or you’re going to find yourself on the outside of some incredible medicine.

Juan Lei’s father has a good job with a mining company. His family has an international insurance plan. Still, they have to pay the doctor’s bill up front. And fees can be 10 times higher than in Peru. Juan’s mom, Raquel, says the cutting-edge care is worth it.

RAQUEL LEI: My son’s health is worth more than all the gold in the world.

International patients spend $3 billion a year on medical care in the U.S. Hospitals around the country are in a race to tap the deep pockets of wealthy foreigners.

ROLAND RODRIGUEZ: You could easily have a patient whose bill runs a million-and-a-half dollars.

That’s Roland Rodriguez. He’s heading a push to bring more overseas patients to Jackson Memorial, Miami’s financially strapped public hospital.

RODRIGUEZ: We have one thing that no one can beat which is our location. There’s airline flights in from everywhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, and that gives us a very special competitive advantage.

Jackson Memorial has teamed up with other local hospitals to market Miami as a health-care destination. The institutions have ponied up $12,500 each for an initial campaign. And they launched a Web site,

Cardiologist William O’Neill is with the University of Miami Hospital. He says the profit from foreign patients makes up for losses from treating the poor.

WILLIAM O’NEILL: The funds generated are going to be huge to help pay for bad debt and indigent care and non-reimbursed care that we have from U.S. patients. They balance the books.

But some may see an imbalance when struggling Americans get basic medical treatment only because rich foreigners subsidize it. For now, hospitals continue to tempt those flush international patients with lush “concierge” services.

Jackson Memorial opened its wood-paneled international welcome center two years ago. The staff arranges airport pickup, discounted hotel stays, and appointments with specialists.

To get into its private quarters, you need to ring a doorbell.

Another Miami hospital, Baptist, treated 12,000 foreign patients from 100 countries last year, more than any other hospital in the region. Paul Lopez came to Baptist for cancer treatment from the Caribbean island of St. Croix. He says with Miami just two hours away, he rarely sees a doctor on the island.

PAUL LOPEZ: We have a saying in St. Croix, if you have a headache, you take an aspirin. Other than that, you take American Airlines. You know, to get here.

In Miami, I’m Dan Grech for Marketplace.

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