Americans seek affordable medical care in Mexico

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They're the uninsured or underinsured, and they've given up on getting care in this country. These are the people at the center of the heated healthcare debate. And as the Congress tries to figure out how to cover more or most Americans, Mexico is catering to their needs now.

Streets in Mexican towns like Nuevo Progeso near south Texas border and Los Algodones across from Arizona offer a host of the doctor's offices, dentists and pharmacies. Private hospitals in Juarez, Tijuana and Monterrey offer surgery and other treatments. The trend extends well beyond the border area. U.S. and Mexican companies are rushing to take advantage of medical tourism. Mexico should enjoy a bigger share of the global business its right next door.

At small storefront at a mall in El Paso, U.S. citizens shop for healthcare.This is the sales office for the Centro Medico de Especialidades, a private hospital just across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. In spite of the violence in Juarez, the hospital is getting new patients.

"They're shocked when they see the prices compared to the United states prices. They like that. It's a lot of savings." On the morning we visited sales manager Adriana Provencio got several calls. She answered questions in a reassuring voice. "You're looking into having the chemotherapy done over there in Mexico? Ok. OK."

It's clear many of those who call or come in have heard "no" many times from their insurance companies (if they have insurance). And they're relieved to find a place that says yes. Mr. Ruben Jimenez was in that situation when he walked into the office.

The 76 year old appliance repairman had been denied coverage by Medicare for a high risk operation because of his age. In February U.S. doctors discovered a tumor growing behind his eye. "The pressure it was killing me. The pressure inside I just could feel a horrible headache," Mr. Jimenez told me.

He risked losing his eye, his driver's license and the business he built. What's going to happen to my life? Be inside the house looking out the windows like a lion inside a cage. I will die. I will die."

While repairing a refrigerator at a home, a lady told him about Centro Medico de Especialidades. He went for testing and by the end of the same week the hospital scheduled surgery.

Mr. Jimenez is among a growing number of Americans who cross the border looking for affordable care they can't get at home. They go to Mexico to see doctors, dentists, buy glasses or pick up prescription medications - all at a fraction of the cost.

"I think we're going to increase our patients from the U.S. because the cost in the U.S. is going way up and here in Mexico staying at the same price as always." Dr. Sergio Soto Alberto, told me during a visit to his office.

The orthopedic Surgeon at Centro Medico de Espeicalidades in Juarez ran down a list of common procedures, " knee replacement, hip replacement, spine, neck surgery, fractures." He offers treatment for about a third of the price in the U.S.

How at do his American patients react to the price in Mexico? "They get mad. They say they're paying so much insurance and why?"
So how low can the price go? "Sometimes the deductable will be same as whole cost here." Dr. Jorge de la Chapa told me during a visit to his office at Centro Medico de Especialidades. Dr. de la Chapa is an ophthalmologist who sees plenty of patients from the United States.

Some travel from other parts of Texas, Arizona. And he remembers one man who drove down from New Jersey for treatment. At 67 Dr. de la Dr. Chapa looks nowhere near ready to retire. His good humor comes in handy with children. A collection of funny glasses hang on the wall of his office, gifts from patients.

And in his pocket he keeps a rubber skeleton head. He pulls it out and gives it a squeeze. The eyes pop out comically. Joking aside, Dr. de la Chapa is a skilled surgeon and with the help of a neurologist at the hospital decided to take Mr. Jimenez's complicated case. Remember he has the tumor behind his eye.

On the 4th of July the team of Mexican doctors operated on Mr. Jimenez. The delicate surgery took 7 hours. " I feel a lot better. The pain is gone. I can see a lot better than even before the operation. "Mr. Jimenez told me this week.

His eyelid is still swollen. But he says give him another month, and the appliance repairman will be back on the job.