San José, Costa Rica – Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh said this week he’d go to Costa Rica for medical treatment if Congress passes proposed reforms to the US healthcare system.
That might sound like an unusual choice, since this is a country with one of the longest standing socialized healthcare systems on the planet. Everyone here (including resident foreigners), are required to pay into the government-run health system, whether they use it or not.
But Limbaugh’s choice may also serve to advertise what many Americans traveling here for medical treatment already know: Costa Rica is a fabulous place for medical tourism.
Life expectancy in this little Central American country surpasses that of the United States and at one point, back in the early 2000s when the World Health Organization rated countries’ general health, Costa Rica ranked higher (No. 36) than its northern neighbor (No. 37), despite spending 87 percent less on health care per capita.
Some who have studied Costa Rican health care consider it better overall, and attribute that to the fact that free coverage extends to 86.8 percent of the population.
But the Cadillac-style private hospitals at Chevy Aveo prices are what really draw 25,000 Americans to Costa Rica every year.
“People travel to Costa Rica (and) receive the same quality of medical services for a fraction of the cost,” said Jorge Cortés, president of the Council for International Promotion of Costa Rica Medicine and medical director of Hospital Biblica, one of three internationally-accredited private hospitals in Costa Rica. “When people see they can get the same surgery for three or four times less, they decide to get medical care abroad.”
Lower labor costs and fewer malpractice suits keep the prices down here. In Costa Rica’s private system, a teeth-cleaning might run $40 and a general check-up costs $50.
Medical bargains More extensive surgeries? A facelift averages $2,800 to $3,200 in Costa Rica, compared to $7,000 to $9,000 in the United States. A knee replacement may cost $11,000 in Costa Rica, but can be as much as $45,000 in the United States.
But there’s another arm of the country’s medical system – the public system – which is relied upon by a majority of the population. While celebrated by Costa Ricans for “universal access,” it’s often criticized for long wait times and delays in treatment.
“There’s a difference between the healthcare system that serves people living in Costa Rica verses that which is known to foreigners,” said Robert Book, a healthcare economist for the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. “It’s the private option for foreigners that Mr. Limbaugh was referring to when he said he would go to Costa Rica.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Limbaugh clarified his comment about leaving the United States, after “the liberal media” celebrated his vow of self-imposed exile, viewing healthcare reform as a way to rid themselves of the conservative talk show host.
“If I have to get thrown into this massive government health care insurance business and end up going to the driver’s license office every day when I need to go to the doctor, yeah, I’ll go to Costa Rica for treatment, not move there,” he told listeners Tuesday, according to a transcript on his website.
Mr. Cortés said Limbaugh would not be alone in traveling abroad for medical care. He’s expecting medical tourism to increase by 5-7 percent over the next year, regardless of what happens with the US healthcare reform bills.
Booming business And that increase is building upon a growth Costa Rica has already seen. Since the recession forced many Americans out of jobs, Costa Rica has seen a surge in the number of their northern neighbors coming here for health services. In fact, there’s an entire industry catering to the medical tourist, including post-surgery spa services, sightseeing packages, hotels, and transportation.
But, if Limbaugh did move to Costa Rica and chose to initiate the process of residency, he’d be required to pay into the government-run social security system – which runs the health care system too. Under law, all people employed in Costa Rica must contribute 5.5 percent of their salary to the state-run social security system and employers are required to match their payment with 9.25 percent. Even those here for retirement are obligated to contribute under new immigration laws, regardless of whether they hold private insurance.
“The strengths of our health system (is) that it is universal, that it’s based on the idea of solidarity and that it’s fair,” says Dr. Ana Morice, vice health minister in Costa Rica. “What we need to improve is access to health services. Many times someone requests an appointment and doesn’t receive it until a year later. In that area, we have much to improve.”
Of course, if Limbaugh decided to move to or buy real estate in Costa Rica, he wouldn’t be the first celebrity. His neighbors might include actor Mel Gibson, model Gisele Bundchen, AOL executive Steve Case, or Vice President Joe Biden’s brother, Frank.