Joy Guion, 39, a married mother of two, is on a journey. She’s leaving Hickory, N.C., to save her life and not kill her family’s savings.
With a family history of diabetes and heart disease, she’s going to the only place she can afford gastric bypass weight loss surgery.
Her destination: Costa Rica. It’s a tourist hotspot and growing in popularity for the booming business of medical tourism. For Guion it will be a 10-day adventure of a lifetime.
And get this: all of it will be paid for by her employer.
Joining her is Gary Harwell, 65,a retiree from the same plant where Guion works. He’s going for knee replacement surgery.
At 283 lbs, Guion has “severe chronic obesity,” she'd wanted surgery for years. But with an annual salary of $28,000, even with insurance, she couldn't afford the out of pocket expense.
Harwell’s wife works. But as a retiree, he was prepared to live with severe knee pain.
They are both part of a growing wave of Americans frustrated by U.S. healthcare costs -- the highest in the world --and traveling abroad for more affordable medical procedures. But here's what’s new. Their company back home, HSM Solutions, a transportation and furniture manufacturer in western North Carolina is paying the entire bill: airfare, a 4-star hotel, a personal driver and a patient assistant.
And the love doesn't stop there. There’s also a private room in a private hospital with a pullout bed for guests.
In the U.S., the knee replacement would have cost more than $50,000. In Costa Rica, it's half that -- $23,531. Back home Guion’s gastric sleeve surgery goes for about $30,000. In Costa Rica, it’s $17,386. Plus, both patients would have each paid $3,000 out of pocket. In Costa Rica, they pay nothing.
Their employer said it just makes economic sense. So far, the company has sent close to 250 employees abroad for surgery.
“The American healthcare system, quite frankly, is broken at the moment,” said Tim Isenhower, director of benefits, HSM Solutions. “We're talking 40 million people out there that have no insurance. That's a broken system.”
Harwell’s knee surgery will take nearly 2 hours. Much of the equipment, including his new knee, are actually made in the United States.
Guion shows up for her gastric sleeve surgery. Her procedure also goes well. Remember that all of this is at their employer’s expense. And yet there is one more bonus. When the bandages come off back home, each will receive a check from the company for at least $2,500. A percentage of the money saved in insurance costs.
“As I have said all along, it's a no brainer,” said Guion.
But medical experts who are tracking the increasing number of Americans -- now more than a million -- going abroad for medical procedures, are concerned.
“The biggest risks are an inability to sue for medical malpractice if something goes wrong, the risk of getting an infection while abroad, the risk of a poorly performed procedure,” explained Glenn Cohen, a professor at Harvard Law School. “Risks in terms of what you're doing to the destination country's healthcare system. And finally poor documentation will make it more difficult to get follow-up care when you're at home.”
Harwell and Guion are still recovering at their resort hotel in Costa Rica, with daily visits from a private nurse, access to free cell phone service to call home and co-workers anxiously waiting for a recommendation.
“Even though it's for my health, that's my benefit out of it,” said Guion. “And then the rest is to help us all. You know it's a wonderful thing. So it's like a win-win situation to me.”