Mexico City Offers Tourists Free Health Insurance

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As the debate over healthcare reform rages in the U.S. - Mexico City is offering free medical insurance to anyone who visits the capital through the end of the year. So break a leg, need dental work, or treatment for some other illness while in Mexico City - you're covered.

"You can go to any big hospital, dental, some operations, and any accident of course the influenza is covered by this insurance, Juan Carlos Arnau Avila with Mexico City's Tourism Department explained.

Mr. Arnau is in charge of strategic programs for the city and considers the insurance a great incentive for tourists who want to visit. The timing couldn't be better with uninsured or underinsured Americans at the center of the healthcare debate.

"We really are one of the major capitals of the world that should be visited," Arnau touted the city's theaters, restaurants, museums, and history A new promotion offers a combined Mexico City/beach vacation package featuring coastal resorts.

The insurance is designed to restore confidence in travelers after the H1N1 scare in the capital this spring. Border photographer Hugo Perez and I were in Mexico City during the outbreak. We returned recently to see how Mexico City is doing.

The sidewalk cafés were bustling with business from mostly local residents enjoying a leisurely lunch. It's hard to believe just a few months ago the normal life in the capital of more than 9 million people practically came to a halt. Back then the government ordered all non-essential businesses closed to control crowds and keep the virus from spreading.

While most tables were filled at restaurants in the "La Condesa," neighborhood, in another part of the city an artisan market catering to tourists was nearly empty. Vender Norma Lilia Olin wants Americans to know, "We're here waiting with our arms open to receive you. Don't be afraid." She told me tourism was down -even before the H1N1 outbreak. She blames news stories about drug violence in other parts of Mexico for scaring people away.

Tourism is one of Mexico's top sources of income. And with the other leading income sources, oil and remittances down, it's more important than ever. Mexico City sees the insurance offer as a low risk gamble to get tourists back. Mr. Arnau put it this way, "We send a message that Mexico City is a safer place in which you are covered and really the risks are being taken by the insurance company. And the Mexico City government is really happy with this plan."

OK. I know what you're thinking; all those underinsured or uninsured Americans will flock to Mexico City for a "vacation" to get free medical or dental care.
"As a surprise we have some dental issues," Mr. Arnau told me. In the first 3 weeks there have been less than 40 claims by tourists. Half were for dental work. Arnau says Mexico City expects the number of people taking advantage of the free insurance to grow as more traveler' become aware of the option.

But just like your insurance company back home, MAPFE, the company managing the travel insurance for Mexico City will be on the lookout for pre-existing conditions.
Mexico's free travel insurance offer runs through the end of the year but could be extended beyond that. "Right now there are a lot of destinations, a lot of states, even a lot of countries that are paying attention to this program."They're watching to see if it helps Mexico City's tourism industry recover.