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US Maternity Medical Tourist Situation Mirrors Hong Kong

Posted on Mar 30, 2011 by Sergio Ulloa ()

American authorities have announced the closure of a "Maternity House" in the Californian city of San Gabriel, according to a New York Times report published March 29th, 2011. Neighborhood residents had complained repeatedly about the excessive noise coming from a local building, and the large number of pregnant women seen entering and exiting the area. Police officers and building inspectors discovered that the building was a center for Chinese medical tourists, who were using the home as a means to deliver their babies in the USA, thereby granting the child American citizenship. This situation is by no means unique to the USA as Hong Kong, for many years, has experienced a massive influx of mainland mothers looking to give birth within the city. There are a number of reasons which can be used to explain the increase in Chinese mothers traveling abroad to give birth. One of these is with regards to the People's Republic's notorious "One Child Policy," stating that Chinese nationals, within China, are only allowed to conceive, and give birth to, one Child. By going overseas to deliver, the mother is able to escape the bounds of Chinese legislation, and potentially have an additional baby upon return to her home nation. The second reason for going overseas to give birth is more to do with having a form of "insurance" against untoward changes within the People's Republic of China. In the case of the USA, any child born within the bounds of America's borders automatically becomes a Citizen of the USA under the 14th amendment. Once the child is 21 years of age, they are then a full citizen of the country, and are able to petition the government to allow their parents to join them as residents of the US. In Hong Kong this situation is paralleled, mainland mothers giving birth within the HKSAR gain their child "Right of Abode," and consequently Permanent Residency; in addition to being granted the privilege of living in one of China's most prosperous cities as their child's guardian. While technically a part of China, Hong Kong operates under the "One Country, Two Systems" principal, and immigration of PRC nationals to the city is tightly controlled. By having a child in Hong Kong, the families of these children are able to ensure that they will not be deported for illegal immigration or visa over-stay infringements. However, Hong Kong, unlike the USA, has healthcare system which is predominately public in nature. While private healthcare services and hospitals do exist in the city, the majority of residents receive their medical treatment through low cost, government run healthcare facilities. With a large number of pregnant mainland mothers using the maternity facilities at public hospitals within Hong Kong there was a serious strain placed on the city's healthcare services. In some cases Chinese mothers accounted for more than 30 per cent of all deliveries at certain hospitals within Hong Kong. In fact, this situation progressed to such an extent in Hong Kong that in 2008 the city's government passed legislation introducing mandatory pricing for non-resident mothers wishing to give birth in Hong Kong public hospitals. Non-resident mothers who have booked their delivery in a Hong Kong public hospital are now required to pay a minimum booking fee of HK$ 39,000 (US$ 5,005.82) for a three day, two night maternity package. Non-resident mothers who have not booked a hospital bed, in other words, walk-ins, are charged HK$ 48,000 (US$ 6,161.06). The costs here do not include any complications of pregnancy, but are only for a routine delivery, and even then represent the minimum amount that a non-resident mother can be expected to pay; for Chinese nationals this no mean sum, as the nation's average annual income is a paltry US$4,520. Further to this, the Hong Kong government has not made any specific legislation with regards to the city's private maternity hospitals, where the average maternity costs for a routine delivery are in the US$ 8,500 range; a cesarean section, or c-section, at the same hospitals will typically be priced at US$ 12,838. In comparison, the USA federal average for a routine child delivery comes in at roughly US$ 7,600. As can be seen from the costs involved, the women undertaking this Medical Maternity Tourism phenomenon are clearly not from the lowest strata of Chinese society. With Chinese companies offering one-stop maternity tourism services from between CNY 50,000 - 90,000 (US$ 7,623 - 13,721), it is evident that these women, and their families must be, at least, slightly well off. This then poses the question of why, exactly, the rate at which Chinese mothers are traveling overseas to give birth is increasing. In recent years the PRC's Central Government has made extraordinary strides towards improving the standards of the nation's healthcare system and services; going so far as to introduce a comprehensive private China health insurance system, and stepping up much needed overhauls of the country's top hospitals.  In many cases China is able to offer private medical services which are on-par with, if not exceeding, those of their western counterparts. Hospitals like Parkway Shanghai are able to deliver some of the highest standards of medical treatment within the People's Republic of China, and while they mainly serve foreign national expatriates, do cater services to Chinese residents. The reason for this development then cannot be the quality of care, or even the cost of treatment, as these are both adequately covered within the People's Republic. Additionally, unlike the furor over "Anchor Babies" within the USA, the Chinese mothers in question often return home after giving birth, and are usually in possession of above average financial means. The issue of Chinese mothers giving birth in the USA is baffling American immigration experts, who say that the women are not acting in violation of current American laws. However, as in Hong Kong, there is apparent anger towards the trend. From the New York Times story:
"These people aren't doing anything in violation of our laws," said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tougher immigration controls. "But if anything, it is worse than illegal immigrants delivering a baby here. Those kids are socialized as Americans. This phenomenon of coming to the U.S. and then leaving with people who have unlimited access to come back is just ridiculous."
While there are many women from Asian nations participating in similar activities, such as South Korea, the Philippines, and India, it is Chinese mothers who are driving the trend. Not only are these mothers driving the trend, but their actions imply long term forethought towards the question of; where is it best to deliver my child overseas? When looking at the American medical system the first thing which is immediately apparent is the need for some form of health insurance. Medical services within the USA can be prohibitively expensive, a much publicized and debated issue, necessitating some form of comprehensive health insurance coverage. However, it is important to realize that many insurers will impose a significant waiting periods on policy benefits such as maternity coverage. In some cases, the waiting period associated with maternity can be as long as 24 months from the start of a plan, although the norm would be closer to 12. As such, it is obvious that these "Maternity Tourists" will have been planning their delivery trip for quite some time prior to departure. However, looking at the overall situation, it becomes much more complex than it can first seem. Of those Chinese nationals and residents who do possess a health insurance policy, the type of policy prevalent within the population is "local health insurance." These are medical insurance plans which are designed to work solely within a specific country, in this case China. These plans will not cover the policyholder overseas; while Hong Kong is considered to be a part of China, it is technically a separate national entity, so local China health insurance will not provide cover in the city, never mind the USA.  However, in the case of Hong Kong, these maternity tourists tend to cover the costs related with the birth out-of-pocket. American health insurance would then seem like an option; however, obtaining domestic USA health insurance to cover the costs associated with the birth is also a difficult proposition for foreign nationals, as an American residential address is typically required to access a plan. Looking at the waiting periods which will be involved, the logistics here would mean that the Chinese mother would have to be "resident" in the USA for a period which far exceeds the length of stay granted by her visa. As American immigration experts have cited the legality of this type of action, this is most likely not the case. The last proposition for insurance coverage of the birth is with regards to international health insurance plans, which provide medical protection on a global basis. However, Chinese regulations, and the restrictions put in place by many of the major insurance providers operating on the mainland, mean that unless the Chinese citizen is an expatriate residing outside of their home country, they will be unable to obtain this type of policy. Due to the fact that American immigration experts cite the fact that many, if not all, of these mothers return to China after giving birth, having been abroad on temporary tourist visas, this is most likely not the case. At the end of the day, it is extremely difficult for these mothers to fund their maternity tourism via insurance, which lends strong weight to the fact that they are paying for their maternity services out-of-pocket. If the USA is seeking options to resolve this potentially concerning issue, a price increase, or mandatory down payment such as that in place in Hong Kong may be a solution. In 2008, the year that "maternity tourism" began making headlines in Hong Kong, there were 7,462 babies born in the USA to foreign parents. Since then, the number of maternity tourists has only increased, and as China continues to generate more wealth, is likely to continue doing so.
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