First, an anecdote.

When I moved from the United States to Spain and created Jazztel in 1998, I opted to offer health insurance to my employees—a very North American concept. I asked them if they would prefer that Jazztel pay for a private health insurance plan, or instead, that I give them that money directly. It wasn’t substantial, something like 60 euros (75 dollars) a month. It surprised me to learn that hardly anyone chose the private health insurance plan, that few were interested in private health care, that they were remarkably content with the public health system and that they preferred to earn 60 euros more a month.

Later, I was given the chance to check out the Spanish public health care system for myself, partly due to my mountain biking injuries and also because of my children’s various accidents. I saw firsthand that it was really very good and very free. Especially coming from the US where health care costs some 600 euros (750 dollars) per month and, you have to pay for additional things that are included as insured here in Spain.

Now, let’s “fast forward” to 2012.

We have a bankrupt Spain being bailed out by the EU day-to-day. A bankrupt health care system and with massive defaults, but still with good quality medicine and full of new hospitals freshly equipped with the latest “bubble” models from when we still had credit. All this accompanied by a great debate over the topic of copays and the plan to charge 710 euros (890 dollars) a year to illegal immigrants. Seeing the situation and being an entrepreneur, it occurred to me to make a business out of this tragedy.

Or let’s just say: make the tragedy less tragic by constructing a business to help it.

Spain is the fourth largest tourist destination in the world. We receive almost 60 million tourists per year and almost all of them come from countries where medicine is more expensive. Why don’t we sell our medical services—that are so good and so cheap—to our tourists? Why don’t we launch medical tourism to a larger scale? Why don’t we transform public health care into an export-oriented industry?

How do you do this? The government could launch a big publicity campaign in which they offer medical insurance to foreigners and allow them access to public health care for 100 euros per month. And for those foreigners who travel here without an insurance plan, they would be charged 40 euros (50 dollars) each time they wanted medical attention and not be seen for free as they are now. North American friends that had health problems in Menorca, for example, couldn’t believe it when after receiving medical treatment, were released without being charged. They were willing to pay 100 euros for a consultation; 40 euros would seem like a bargain. Foreigners don’t expect it, but they receive free medical treatment in Spain.

From here we can start to promote medical tourism. Come get yourself treated with the Spanish national health system! We are the longest-living of all big countries in the world!

If the government ensured that one million of the 60 million tourists pay this medical tourism insurance, it could obtain 1.2 billion euros (1.5 billion dollars) a year. To North Americans, being able to come to Spain and while here, go to the doctor for free, all for an insurance premium of 1,200 euros annually, would be very beneficial. The Germans pay 300 euros a month for insurance. And we won’t even speak of the uninsured people in many countries who have money but not enough to afford insurance in their country. In Argentina, for example, insurance that provides the same quality of service as Spanish health care costs about 300 euros per month. I know that getting a million customers isn’t easy, but the market has 60 million. Later we will have to determine the costs of treating these patients, but I find it possible to make a profit. Especially when there is so much infrastructure already in place.

I think the Spanish government has a possibility to finance a part of the health of its people with medical tourism, and that this opportunity should at least be studied. I know many Spanish people think that health care should be free for everyone, but it isn’t—we pay for it ourselves and we can find more customers overseas. It’s time to be creative and sell medical insurance to foreigners with the Spanish national health system.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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