Stethoscope forming the shape of a plane | © Atomic Imagery, Getty Images

Stethoscope forming the shape of a plane (© Atomic Imagery/Getty Images)

As the Democrats and Republicans continue to bicker about health care, more U.S. patients are tuning out and getting out, hopping planes to countries where the care is more affordable and, arguably, better.

That's what 56-year-old Atlanta personal trainer Ralph Ballard did in 2009. Uninsured and needing a hip replacement, he found that his options stateside were severely limited. "It's ridiculous the cost we have to pay for health care. The greed is just incredible," Ballard says. "I tried to get financial assistance and nobody would give me a dime. At one hospital, I was told that my costs would start at $60,000! And that didn't cover the doctor, the prosthesis, the guy who sweeps the floor."

MSN Healthy LIving: Stay healthy while traveling

So Ballard did research on the Internet and eventually contacted a medical practice in Costa Rica. He learned that

"It's ridiculous the cost we have to pay for health care. The greed is just incredible."

$17,200 would cover the cost of his surgery, including a titanium prosthetic ball set in his hip, all tests and X-rays, a brief hospital stay, two weeks at a pleasant ranch where he received excellent food and daily physical therapy, and transfers to and from the airport. He paid extra only for his airfare.

"It was the best thing I ever did. The hip is perfect now, my surgeon was great, and they treated me wonderfully. If I ever need another procedure, I'm going back there," Ballard says.

Ballard is just one of a flood of American patients heading abroad for surgeries and other medical and dental treatments. "There's been between a 20 percent and a 30 percent growth rate for this sort of travel in just the last five years," says Josef Woodman, author of the book series and website Patients Beyond Borders and CEO of Healthy Travel Media. According to Woodman's data, the number of outbound American medical tourists has grown from approximately 150,000 in 2007 to between 600,000 and 900,000 today.

With those kinds of numbers comes more widespread acceptance for what was once considered an oddball enterprise. "We've hit the tipping point. Gone are the days when I had to convince a patient that it was safe," says Rudy Rupak, founder and CEO of Planet Hospital, a long-established company that facilitates medical travel. "They've all heard medical tourism is safe, so now it's just about price and convenience."

And the price can be very right, ranging from between 30 percent to 90 percent less abroad than in the U.S., varying widely by procedure and destination, according to the experts I interviewed.

Bing: Find flights to Costa Rica