There’s at least one sector celebrating a proposed tax on cosmetic surgery in theUnited States, and that’s the companies and doctors abroad that cater to medical tourism.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of North Americans look offshore for tummy tucks, facelifts and breast enhancements, knowing the cost for such procedures is a fraction of what it would be in the U.S. The 5 percent tax on elective cosmetic procedures – proposed as part of the 2,074- page health reform bill up for debate in the U.S. Senate – could mean even more people will pack their bags and head for faraway destinations.
“It will definitely have an effect here,” said Jorge Cortés, president of the Council for International Promotion of Costa Rican Medicine (PROMED) and director of Hospital Clínica Bíblica in San José. “The greatest motivation for medical tourism … is that people are looking for the highest quality at the lowest price. In Costa Rica, our cosmetic surgery on average costs one third less than it does in the U.S.”
Cortés estimates that 25,000 people come to Costa Rica for cosmetic surgery annually, a number that is increasing by 7 percent each year. He said 50 percent come for cosmetic surgery, and the other 50 percent come for orthopedic and weight loss surgeries, among other procedures.
“We are preparing for more patients,” he said. “At this moment, we have the capacity to increase the number of patients by 40 percent.”
Michael Quiros, director of Latin American membership for the Medical Tourism Association, said countries can prepare for an influx of consumers by establishing clusters – a combination of businesses and services that cater to the international patient. The cluster is a feat that Costa Rica has already accomplished through PROMED, which counts hotels, restaurants, tour companies and transportation services among its members. The goal is to offer services that meet all the needs of the foreign patient.
“If you do this correctly and you have people working together, then you can attract more patients to your country,” he said. Quiros said the most popular destinations in Latin America for plastic surgery are Costa Rica, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia, but the quality of services is the same caliber.
“What you find in Brazil, you’ll find in Panama and Peru,” he said.
Cortés – in efforts to promote Costa Rica as a top destination for patients looking abroad for medical services – is working with local hospitals and doctors on international accreditation and on a strategic plan to market the country as a mecca for medical procedures.
“Costa Rica is in a very competitive position,” Cortés said. “One reason is Costa Rica’s proximity to the U.S. The costs in India might be less, but you also have to account for longer (and more expensive) travel. We also have a stable social democracy, which other countries don’t have, and we have a medical system that is recognized for its quality on the international level.”
Not only has Cortés been working to attract North Americans now, he is hoping Costa Rica will be the first choice of U.S. patients if a tax on cosmetic surgeries is part of an eventual health reform law.
The proposed tax was introduced as a mechanism to help pay for an $849-billion health system overhaul in the U.S. and proponents say it will generate $5.8 billion a year if approved by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the president. If passed, the tax could go into effect as soon as next year.
But plastic surgeons in the U.S. have launched a campaign to prevent the tax, arguing that its effects would result in discrimination against women, who represent 86 percent of cosmetic surgery patients in that country.
“This tax is effectively a ‘soccer mom’ tax that will adversely impact mainstream American wives and mothers, who are the majority of plastic surgery patients,” said Dr. Renato Saltz, president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS). “As doctors, we understand and appreciate the need for health care reform, but taxing physicians and cosmetic surgery procedures to pay for the reform is not realistic or beneficial.”
Only 10 percent of the respondents in a recent survey reported a household income of over $90,000, “which clearly refutes the suggestion that elective surgery taxes are ‘luxury’ or ‘sin’ taxes affecting a privileged few,” according to an ASPS statement released earlier this month.