Swiss insurer takes tentative steps into medical tourism

Fifth largest Swiss health insurer, Assura, has linked up with Geneva based medical tourism agency, Novacorpus. The initial offer is cheap laser eye surgery in Turkey where it costs 1,400 francs for an operation compared to 9,500 francs in Switzerland. Elective laser eye surgery is not covered by Assura, so any treatment will not be paid for or contributed to by the insurer. Assura is simply offering the option to customers who want to save money by dealing directly with and paying Novacorpus for treatment in Turkey.

Assura has two objectives with this limited pilot. The first is to test whether customers are willing to leave the country for operations, as if they are not, any future deals are pointless. The other is to consider if in the longer term, it would be possible for patients and their insurance to offer the option of operations such as knee, hip or heart surgery in carefully selected foreign hospitals; and this may be rewarded by a lower premium in some way, possibly in the region of a 10 % saving. A good hospital in Istanbul could provide an artificial hip and including travel costs for 10,000 francs (between 10,000 and 25,000 francs less than in Switzerland).

There is a very good reason why the insurer cannot offer any insured medical tourism at present; it is illegal. According to the Health Insurance Act, customers must be treated, not just in Switzerland, but also within their canton (local government area). That restriction could be abolished within a few years; although Switzerland is not a member country of the European Union and as such not bound by EU law, it has trade and other links that would mean it would have to comply with any proposed EU freedoms of treatment. While the Swiss medical association in theory has no problem with freedom of movement for treatment, it does have the caveat that any such treatment must be of as good a standard as in Swiss hospitals, and that Swiss nationals must be treated equally with EU citizens. While it may be easy for Swiss insurers to find cheaper overseas treatment, ensuring the quality is as good as in the excellent Swiss hospitals, may not be so easy. Meanwhile, the real test will be if Assura customers are prepared to pay for laser eye treatment in Turkey, and if they are satisfied with the results. The Swiss are very demanding on medical services, accommodation and other facilities.