Flying to the Doctor 

The lack of insurance coupled with skyrocketing medical costs has led many Korean Americans to seek cheaper care in their homeland.

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Whichever the case, it's clear that medical tourism there is on the rise. The South Korean government is trying to encourage the industry, and last year enacted a law to allow its hospitals to directly seek foreign patients. A joint venture between the government and private investment is in the process of creating a sprawling "Healthcare Town" on the island of Jeju, a resort-like medical facility designed to attract foreigners.

Even US health-insurance companies are recognizing the value in medical tourism. According to the consultancy group Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, several insurers, including Blue Shield, Health Net, and Anthem WellPoint have launched medical-tourism pilot programs, sending some group members for certain elective procedures to hospitals in India, Thailand, and Mexico because they're cheaper. In addition, states such as West Virginia and Colorado have introduced legislation to encourage public employees to seek medical treatment overseas, also in order to reduce costs. However both bills failed to pass, likely because they provided financial incentives for patients and employers

With US health-care costs among the world's highest, and predicted to rise 6 percent per year for the next decade, more and more Americans will likely seek care beyond our borders — and not just for major surgeries. The consultancy group Deloitte Center for Health Solutions recently released a report stating that 750,000 Americans traveled abroad for medical care in 2007. And that number is expected to grow to 1.6 million by 2012. Lee said initially his clients were older, first-generation Korean Americans. "Now all generations," he said, "because they find out cheaper, more convenient, good treatment."

Though Lee, who came to this country 38 years ago, has health insurance in the United States, he also sought medical treatment in Korea last year for the first time. "They are more kind, more friendly," he enthused in his Grand Avenue office, adding that the hospitals have new, state-of-the-art equipment and the doctors are well educated. "I sent all my family to go there," he said. "It's very common."

Nineteen-year-old Sunjmin Hur, a nursing student at Laney and Berkeley City College who works at Cyber Cafe on Telegraph Avenue, said he returned to his homeland in 2007 because of a cavity and to get his wisdom teeth removed. He paid less than $50, including prescriptions. This year, he's planning to return to get Lasik surgery. All of his friends, he says, do the same.

Suk Lee, owner of Casserole House in Oakland, said she always gets dental work done when she travels to Korea, about once a year, even though she has dental insurance in the United States. The 69-year-old, who has lived in this country for 35 years, says she has been getting her dental work done in Korea for the last ten years. "They clean everything — if they find [she motions to a cavity], they fill it up for me," she said, adding that it cost $200. "They have fantastic equipment and doctors." Lee said she goes with her friends. "It's fun," she said. "One hospital — you walk in, you complain, they do everything. I wish they have here."

But the fact that it's cheaper to buy a plane ticket to fly to Korea and see a doctor than it is to get care in the US is "absolutely absurd," said Ricky Choi, who heads the pediatric department at Asian Health Services and resides on the board of the National Council of API Physicians. Choi, no relation to Sudok Choi, has been a vocal advocate in the health-care reform debate, and is in favor of adding a public option and eliminating the five-year ban on new legal immigrants from becoming eligible for Medicaid, Medicare, or other insurance subsidies. "Having a public option will add competition to the health insurance market, help bring cost down, and therefore allow more people to have access to the health-care system," he said. "Korean Americans, for example, would benefit from a cheaper health insurance program and would allow them to buy into it."

Yet many Koreans continue to be largely uninformed of how America's health-care system works. Mrs. Choi, who had recently been in a car accident and was taken to the hospital, said she was confused as to which of her insurance companies — car, life, or health — would be paying her hospital bills. Navigating such complex bureaucracy would be difficult for anyone, let alone someone with limited English-speaking ability.

And she wasn't any clearer on health-care reform. Choi admitted she didn't really understand what reform would mean for her or how it would work, but said she didn't think it would be fair if that meant her taxes would be raised. However, when told it might mean cheaper insurance for her, Choi said she'd "jump at the chance" — even if the quality wasn't as good as her private insurance.

With care being so much cheaper in South Korea, Yoo finds it difficult to comprehend why services are so much more expensive in the United States. "Make copayment $5 or $10 — and the rest covered by government like Korean system," he suggested. "We don't understand why health care is so controversial. ... Medical cost should be reasonable so everyone can be treated equally."

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