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Arguments about government regulations stifling Houston businesses are a common refrain in oil and gas skyscrapers. But recently those charges are being leveled from corner offices in the Texas Medical Center — and, no, this has nothing to do with Obamacare.
The issue is medical tourism and a federal bureaucracy of fear that’s hampering the growth of a once thriving industry in Houston. This isn’t just a problem for global elites seeking plastic surgery here. People everywhere want the technical genius the world’s largest medical complex provides, and the hurdles should not be insurmountable for international patients.
Before our world changed with the terrorist attacks of 9/11, about 40,000 patients from abroad — often paying with cash — would travel to physicians in the Medical Center. That level today has been cut in half. Post-9/11 changes enacted by a terrified Congress have led to stricter medical visa requirements. Potential visitors have faced Homeland Security detention and interrogations at Bush Intercontinental Airport and other points of entry.
“Homeland Security was created. It wasn’t very friendly. It discouraged people from coming,” Rosanna Moreno, a Houston attorney and partner of McMains & Moreno Global Consultants, told the Chronicle. Simultaneously, Germany, Thailand, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and other countries have upped the quality of their health care with a focus on attracting international clients and carving off a slice of our share.
One medical tourist told Chronicle reporter Lora Hines, “Health doesn’t have a price” (“Pulling in overseas patients,” Page A1, Sunday). And the numbers prove the point.
Globally, medical tourism generates a minimum of $38.5 billion annually, according to industry experts. Officials have only begun to study how much of that business comes to Houston. But each dollar a medical tourist spends on care and accommodations has at least a $2 effect on the local economy, according to Patrick Jankowski, economist at the Greater Houston Partnership.
Dr. Robert Robbins, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, wants to rebuild Houston’s international patient base by securing a healthy percentage of those medical tourists for Houston. That goal is realistic, but it is difficult to accomplish when we are figuratively pulled out of line by the TSA.
Houston has advantages in any quest to become the world’s premier medical destination. With 17 international airlines now flying here, the Medical Center is a convenient destination for patients too sick to wait for layovers.
The Medical Center’s stellar reputation is further enhanced by affiliations many of the local hospitals have with foreign counterparts and medical schools. And then there’s this thing called Texas hospitality, which makes it easy for a person speaking any language to make their way.
From the hospitals to the airports to the officials at Homeland Security, we should strive to make our medical tourists feel more welcome than any other place in the world. This effort will require coordination between the consular offices, the Greater Houston Partnership, Houston’s Aviation Department and Homeland Security, among others.
But our elected officials in Washington need to understand that walls designed to keep out bad guys are keeping out patients as well. It is time for Texas’ senators and a congressional delegation led by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, to work on behalf of this important part of Houston’s economy.
“People with money come here,” a medical tourist told the Chronicle. “I feel safe with the physicians … I trust Houston.” We need a higher level of mutual trust for our international guests.