Updated May 7, 2022 - Health

The rise of health-related travel benefits

Illustration of a doctor's hand holding a stethoscope up to a briefcase.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Employers that reimburse workers who travel for reproductive care may be a response to the current political climate, but it's only the latest way in which they're adding medical travel to their list of benefits.

The big picture: Rising health care costs drove employers to design policies that make cheaper or higher-quality services accessible long before the wave of red-state abortion restrictions.

  • The rise of remote work brought on by the pandemic, the shuttering of rural health services and the advent of complicated new health technologies may drive more employers to pay for workers to receive care that's far from home.

Driving the news: Amazon yesterday became the latest employer to announce that it will reimburse employees for travel connected with accessing abortions.

  • But Amazon's policy isn't limited just to reproductive care — it applies generally to non life-threatening treatments, like cardiology, gene therapies and substance use disorder services, Reuters reports.
  • The benefit applies if a service is not available within 100 miles of an employee's home and virtual care isn't an option.

Reality check: Medical travel benefits may be making political waves, but they're not new. In fact, some employers have designed benefits that encourage workers to leave home for care, either because of cost or quality.

  • Some employers pay their workers to receive health care in other countries, the New York Times reported in 2019 — a response to extraordinarily high U.S. prices.
  • Walmart has previously required employees to travel to specific, well-regarded hospitals for certain surgeries, also an attempt to reduce costs.
  • "For employers, it's a matter of ensuring that their employees have access to the best care, wherever it is," said Elizabeth Mitchell, CEO of the Purchaser Business Group on Health, of which Walmart is a member. "More and more employers are comfortable with the idea of steering their employees to the top providers."

Between the lines: Amazon's new policy addresses physical access issues, which may become more common beyond the realm of reproductive health.

  • The pandemic has ushered in a much higher prevalence of remote work and a surge of people moving away from big cities.
  • At the same time, rural hospitals continue to close or struggle to continue providing critical services.
  • Technological innovations have brought groundbreaking new treatments to market, including gene therapies, but they're not offered everywhere, meaning many Americans can be shut out.

What they're saying: Companies are "certainly looking at" medical travel benefits, said James Klein, president of the American Benefits Council. "They spend a lot of money on this. They want patients to get the kind of care that gets them back to work quicker and healthier and happier."

  • "It is something that could potentially loom bigger if more and more people decide that on a permanent basis they’re going to be working remotely and in places that are further away from certain types of health providers," Klein added.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 3.

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