Visiting America: Understanding U.S. Healthcare


So you’re planning on visiting the U.S.? If you’ve done your research and checked up on the most popular American states to visit, and have picked out the specific cities you’d like to stay in, you’re probably aware of all the things you need to do before your trip – fill out your Electronic Visa Waiver (if eligible), make sure you’ve got emergency money, and that your phone works on the U.S. cell system.

However, no matter what you’ve decided to do and which sights you will be seeing whilst on your great American adventure, many travelers to the country commonly overlook a very serious aspect of journeying to the country; namely, how to go about receiving healthcare in the event of an accident or emergency.

First things first, before visiting the U.S. (no matter how long you’re actually planning on staying in the country) you should strongly consider purchasing a travel insurance plan which offers health insurance coverage. The reason for this is due to the fact that the U.S. is home to the most expensive healthcare system in the world – with average healthcare costs almost two times more expensive than Hong Kong and Israel, both tied for second in terms of medical costs. What this means is, in the event of an accident or emergency which requires that you receive medical care, the healthcare treatment you undergo will likely be far more expensive than you are used to in your home country.

American ambulance services are typically provided by private operators as well, so it's not cheap. Photo by Matthew Fern.

American ambulance services are typically provided by private operators as well, so it’s not cheap. Photo by Matthew Fern.

There are a number of reasons for the States being the most expensive place in the world to receive healthcare treatment, not in the least of which is the fact that the country’s medical system is almost entirely run on a private basis – this means that there are very few (read that as next to none) government run medical providers outside of Veterans Administration Hospitals which, as a traveler, you are not able to use, as Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals are for wounded soldiers and veterans of the American military.

Because the U.S. healthcare system is run on a private basis, with free-market capitalism at the system’s core, healthcare providers are able to charge whatever the market will bear when pricing different procedures. This is one of the primary reasons why America spends more per capita on healthcare than the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, France, Switzerland, Sweden and Norway – all countries with comprehensive social medical services (like the UK’s National Health Service, or NHS).

Understanding this situation is extremely important when visiting the country, due to the fact that many of the nation’s most popular states for tourists are also some of the costliest when it comes to healthcare, which can be seen by the average annual per-capita healthcare expenditure on a state-by-state basis.

For example, Massachusetts home of the Red Sox, Fenway Park and Cape Cod, is the 6th most popular state to visit in the U.S. However, the state spends more on healthcare per individual per year than any other (bar the District of Columbia) at $ 9,278 per year. New York, which is the number one most popular destination for tourists in the U.S. spends an average $ 8,341 per person per year on healthcare services, while Pennsylvania comes in at $ 7,730 in health care spending per person per year.

These are seriously impressive numbers, especially when considering that Norway only spends $5,388 per person per year on healthcare, and that Norway operates a comprehensive social medical service which is heavily subsidized by the Norwegian government!

To really put the cost of healthcare in the U.S. into perspective, we can look at the average price of various procedures as compared against other healthcare markets around the world:

Table showing average costs of medical procedures in the US and abroad.

All prices in USD, prices may vary dependent on the doctor, location, and time of your procedure. Information contained in this table should be used for informational purposes only.

In many cases the cost of a procedure in America is more than double that of the same treatment in Hong Kong, the second most expensive location!

This can pose a number of problems for travelers who are often unaware of the cost of care in the U.S., especially if those travelers are coming from a number of European nations where healthcare is heavily subsidized by the national government. Further exacerbating this issue is the fact that no reciprocal agreements, like the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) exist with the U.S. This means that in the event of a traveler requiring healthcare treatment while in America (perhaps after suffering heat stroke and dehydration after sitting out in the sun and seeing the Yankees play in New York City) they will be required to pay for the cost of their treatment in full.

This is very different from the systems in place in Europe and other parts of the world, where a system of agreements can allow the traveler to receive healthcare on the same basis as a local resident.

The only way to protect yourself against the costs of healthcare in the U.S. (in the unfortunate event that you would require treatment) is through a comprehensive insurance policy. Fortunately, a number of cost effective international travel insurance solutions are able to provide high levels of medical coverage, ensuring that even if the worst was to occur, you would not be responsible for covering the inflated cost of receiving medical treatment in America. Otherwise, an annual global health insurance plan (if you’re spending more than 6 months away from your home nation) can also provide a high level of security.

While a number of initiatives are currently being rolled out in the country to combat the high cost of care (including the much maligned “Obamacare” reforms), these have not yet been fully implemented. As such travelers should be aware of their risk when traveling to any of the many tourist hotspots in America.

And if you’re still wondering why medical costs are so high in the U.S. here is a great video answering many of the questions around this topic:

About Cooper, Claridge-Ware

Cooper, Claridge-Ware (CCW) is an independent International Health Insurance Brokerage headquartered in Hong Kong, China. With more than 55 years of experience in helping expatriates and travellers around the world find the best insurance solutions possible, CCW helps to simplify the process of identifying, and obtaining, high-quality medical coverage no matter where you may be.

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An International Health Insurance Brokerage headquartered in Hong Kong with 55 years of experience in helping expatriates and travellers find the best insurance solutions.