Health care may not be so local after all. Employers are increasingly looking to medical tourism, or medical travel, to purchase health care services in bulk and at a lower cost, in exchange for their workforce hopping on a plane for a medical procedure. Lowe’s, for example, made a deal with Cleveland Clinic in Ohio to cover all employees’ heart surgeries; as part of the agreement, Lowe’s won’t pay for heart surgery at other hospitals, Bloomberg reported in March.

The result is good for all parties. Patients have lower claims, and are receiving complimentary travel and airfare from employers for the journey. The employer gets lower-priced health care. Both potentially get better medical outcomes, since the concept is to select a hospital that frequently does a particular procedure. And, in turn, the hospital receives a burst in patients to their facility.

Breaking in

The role for advisers in this space is less clear. On the one hand, as traditional brokers and agents move toward a more consultative model — potentially with fee-based compensation — having knowledge of this trend and the key vendors at the forefront will serve to increase their clients’ view of them as trusted adviser.

“It’s always more competitive and I’m sure buyers, employers, are really looking for more and more of their brokers and consultants to deal with challenges in interesting ways,” says Chip Burgett, executive vice president of operations at Denver-based BridgeHealth Medical, Inc., a medical tourism vendor focused on options within the U.S.

Burgett acknowledges that some brokers might still be commission-based and confused about how they would fit into a medical tourism agreement between an employer and a hospital. He says a lot of the firms they work with now are the bigger brokerages, Towers Watson, Aon Hewitt, and countless third-party administrators.

“It’s a matter of learning about us and trying to figure out a fit based on where the client is,” he says. “We do have marketing agreements out with brokers who bring us business, so we’re willing to work in advance with those interested.” He says that for advisers and brokers interested in working with their company, they’d want to strike a marketing agreement with an agency with five or more clients interested in the concept and notes “we’re less interested in the one-off.”

Burgett isn’t sure if other vendors are doing similar arrangements, but says they’re interested in brokers because “most of our business and leads come through intermediaries.”

Laura Carabello is a principal at CPR Strategic Marketing Communications in Elmwood Park, N.J. and writes a newsletter called U.S. Domestic Medical Travel. She sees a clear role for brokers and agents coming soon. “For the brokers who are serving the small or middle market, you can bring savings to them. What you might do is try the domestic travel first, they get a taste of it and boom — they want to know how they can save more money and are willing to travel internationally,” she says, adding that companies like BridgeHealth are increasingly looking at compensation options for brokers.

She warns that vendor research should be conducted very carefully before solidifying any partnership and suggests advisers start first by asking experienced employers about the vendors they trust.

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