Sunday, November 19, 2017
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Lawmakers look to draw medical tourists to Florida

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TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers have a new vision for the tourism industry.

Forget Mickey Mouse and the beaches. Their goal is to make Florida an international destination for people seeking top-notch medical care.

Proposals in the state House and Senate seek to pump $5 million into efforts to promote Florida's health care industry to potential patients worldwide.

That's welcome news to providers like Broward Health, a public health system that already sees thousands of so-called medical tourists each year.

"It will only enhance the activities that have already been going on at our hospital, as well as others around the state," vice president of Broward Health International Abbe Bendell said.

Also standing to benefit: hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions near hospitals and clinics.

The measure has bipartisan support in the Legislature, and the backing of key leaders such as Senate President Don Gaetz.

But Renee-Marie Stephano, president of the Palm Beach County-based Medical Tourism Association, said it will take more than marketing dollars to make Florida a hot spot for medical tourism.

"Advertising is not enough," Stephano said. "Some of those funds should be allocated to underlying service development, like helping (health care providers) understand the unique needs of international patients."

Medical tourism isn't a new concept for the Sunshine State.

"Medical tourism has existed in Florida since Ponce de Leon set out in search of the Fountain of Youth," said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, who is sponsoring the bill with Rep. Patrick Rooney Jr., R-West Palm Beach.

But as transportation and communications technology have improved, more people are seeking medical care outside of their immediate communities.

Experts say the global medical tourism market is valued somewhere between $10 billion and $60 billion annually. The size of the industry in Florida is not clear.

One thing is certain: Health care providers in the Sunshine State are already drawing patients from other states and countries.

International patients, in particular, can be a boon. Many pay cash.

Forty percent of patients at the Lung Institute, a private pulmonary practice in Tampa, come from outside Florida, director of operations Lynne Flaherty said.

"We see patients from Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia," Flaherty said. "They come from Canada, the United Kingdom, the Philippines and South Africa, too."

The Lung Institute helps patients book hotels and secure transportation.

"We'll tell people to see a show at the Straz Center or visit the Florida Aquarium so they can have the full experience," Flaherty said.

Stephano, of the Medical Tourism Association, said Florida could easily become "an epicenter" for the industry.

"If you are looking outside of your borders for care, the destination itself does factor into the decision," she said. "Most people travel with a family member or companion. It's important to know you are going somewhere desirable. Florida is definitely desirable."

Stephano noted that the Sunshine State already has attractions and accommodations that appeal to snowbirds, families and travelers from Latin America.

The bills moving through the Legislature (SB 1150 and HB 1223) would require the state's tourism marketing organization to beef up its promotional efforts around medical tourism. As part of the effort, Visit Florida would showcase select companies offering bundled health care packages and support services.

The legislative proposal would also establish a matching grant program encouraging local and regional economic development organizations to create targeted medical tourism marketing initiatives.

The price tag: $5 million from the state's general revenue account for each of the next four years.

Brenda Escobar, who oversees international services for the Surgery Center at Doral, said she would welcome the infusion of funding. But for the medical tourism industry to be successful in Florida, Escobar said, health care practices statewide will have to focus on language interpretation and other concierge services for international patients.

"They need to be culturally accepting and welcome these people," she said.

Other legislative proposals would work in concert with the medical tourism bill. For example, both chambers are considering a bill that would expand access to telemedicine. That would make it easier for medical tourists to receive follow-up care remotely.

And budget proposals seek to inject millions of dollars into Florida's cancer centers, which tend to be a big draw for international patients.

Bean said the medical tourism bill alone would prompt health care providers to offer "innovative and competitively priced service packages that include amenities from our state's established tourism network of hotels, restaurants and attractions."

His goal is to attract at least 100 million medical tourists to Florida annually, he said.

Times/Herald staff writer Daniel Chang contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected]

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