While Washington fiddles with its health care policies – nobody seems to know from one day to the next whether there will still be a reform law, or even Medicare services for retirees over the next decade – one alternative idea is getting more and more attention.

The medical tourism industry is flourishing, and health care systems in other countries are launching programs to compete for Americans’ health care dollars.

Imagine, it takes an organization backed by a foreign government to offer reasonably priced health care and surgical procedures that economically stressed Americans can actually afford.

Take a heart valve replacement as one example. The average U.S. cost is $170,000. In India, you can get the same procedure for $3,000, according to the website Medical Tourism. That’s about the price you might pay for the procedure in the United States – if you had Cadillac health insurance and a small deductible.

A liver transplant that costs $300,000 in the U.S. runs about $91,000 in Taiwan.

More than 50 countries are developing medical tourism and, although you have to do your homework to make sure you’re getting quality care, there are global accreditation standards that will help guide you to the most appropriate program.

In general, you can get procedures done for as little as one-fifth of the cost of accessing U.S. medical care. Colombia has become a popular destination for Americans, particularly those interested in plastic surgery or weight loss surgery. But angioplasty, which can cost up to $35,000 in a U.S. facility, can be done in Colombia for $8,000, according to First Care Colombia.

Since I live in South Florida, I was interested to learn that the Bahamas is developing its own medical tourism program, rather handy since Freeport is only about 70 miles from West Palm Beach.

The Bahamas may even eventually offer care at brand-name facilities and if you’re up for it, you can squeeze in a little beach time while you’re at it.

“We propose to negotiate to bring established, world-class health-care brands like the Cleveland or Mayo Clinic to our shores,” said Vernice Walkine, the Bahama’s Ministry of Tourism’s director-general.

“Our desire is to partner with a premier medical provider that would be compatible with our Bahamian destination brand, and also with our Ministry of Health’s standards for providing recognized, reputable and proven procedures in treatment.”

People who live in the northern tier of states may look to Canada. In the Southwest and West, a better option may be South America, New Zealand, or Asia.

It’s true that in the course of doing research on the web, you’ll find some horror stories. But there are U.S. medical horror stories as well. Physicians and surgeons make mistakes everywhere and if you thoroughly investigate your options, I believe that the potential error rate won’t be any higher than it is here.

It’s a sad commentary, I realize, that we’ve reached the point where we can no longer rely on our own domestic health care services. We hear again and again that the United States has the greatest, most technologically advanced health care system in the world. That may be true.

But that doesn’t do people any good if they can’t afford to use it.

House Republicans are expected to unveil their Medicare recommendations this week in Washington. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) favors turning Medicare into a “subsidized” plan in which the elderly would get a specific amount of money and then be turned loose to shop on their own for insurance coverage. The amount of the subsidy would increase with the rate of inflation.

Unfortunately health care premiums are experiencing double-digit increases while the federal government’s official inflation rate – which doesn’t include food or fuel – is posted at an unrealistic 1 percent to 2 percent. Guess who will pick up the difference in cost?

The system that we have is unaffordable for many people and government shows no real inclination to fix the problem. Instead of seriously debating innovative ideas, our elected representatives act like a bunch of kids having a food fight in a middle school cafeteria.

We’ll have to look elsewhere for solutions, and medical tourism is a start.

Photo: One of the most popular medical tourism destinations, Apollo Hospitals in India.