By Jerry Pacheco
Healthcare at the Mexican border is a multi-billion dollar, two-directional industry, and one that is complex in the sense that it involves utility, cost, culture, and affluence. If you live in close proximity to Mexico, you know somebody, and maybe it is yourself, that routinely crosses the border for dental work or medical consultations. Mexico’s medical industry serves both Americans seeking economical medical care, and Mexicans living in the U.S. that travel back to their native country for their healthcare. Mexican border cities such as Juarez and Tijuana have a strong healthcare sector due to their close proximity to the U.S. While this “medical tourism” dropped off significantly during the 2006 to 2011 drug-related violence in Mexico, it is once again picking up.
Many Americans seek dental and medical care in Mexico because procedures can be a fraction of the cost in the U.S. Americans on fixed incomes or those not covered by employers’ insurance plans cross the border because of necessity. Traveling to Mexico from the U.S. to purchase cheaper prescription drugs and other pharmaceuticals is big business for pharmacies in Mexico’s border cities. In U.S. border cities, several entrepreneurs have set up shuttle routes to take Americans to Mexico to buy everything from high blood pressure to diabetes medication.
Other Americans travel to Mexico for elective surgeries. Plastic surgery, such as tummy tucks, can cost significantly lower in Mexico than the U.S. Some insurance companies cover certain medical and dental procedures for specific Mexican dentists and physicians. One of my former neighbors, who was raised in the U.S. and had no previous ties to Mexico, compared the cost of a tummy tuck in the U.S. and Mexico and opted to have the procedure south of the border. At a social event while showing off her new figure, she spoke to us of the experience and recounted that she felt comfortable before, during and after the procedure. She was especially enthusiastic about the price she paid.
There are two major reasons working class Mexicans generally travel back to Mexico for healthcare, the first being economical. A large portion of the estimated 12 million undocumented workers are comprised of Mexicans living and working in the U.S. Because many are in the country without proper documentation, they may not be covered by health insurance. Others who are covered cannot afford co-payments or other medical costs. Mexicans in the U.S. near the border can easily (provided that they can return to the U.S.) go to cities such as Juarez and Reynosa to visit a doctor. I have known other Mexican families living deeper in the U.S. interior to schedule their doctors’ visits when they return home for visits during holidays such as Christmas and Holy Week.
The other reason for Mexicans living in the U.S. return to Mexico for medical care is based on culture – many prefer to be treated by doctors in their home towns that they have seen for years, and who they can communicate to them in their native language. I have had Mexican employees who have the legal paperwork to work in the U.S., and whose health insurance I have covered 100 percent, schedule an appointment with their Mexican doctor when they get a touch of the flu or have other health issues. When I ask why they don’t set up an appointment with the American doctor down the block from our office, they tell me that the co-pay is too high or that they simply want to go to Mexico for their care. When I tell them that the time spent going to and from Juarez, including the wait time at the international bridges, and the gas that they will be spending more than exceeds the co-pay, they are still not persuaded to schedule an appointment in the U.S. They simply feel more comfortable seeing a Mexican doctor.
At the other extreme are the more affluent Mexicans who seek medical care in the U.S. A Mexican friend of mine once told me that, “Even though healthcare in Mexico is practically free, anybody with the means seeks out private healthcare, either in Mexico or in foreign countries.” Thousands of Mexicans plan mini-vacations to U.S. cities such as San Antonio, Dallas, and Phoenix to shop, have fun, and to visit their U.S. doctors. I would speculate that these medical tourists want the best medical care that their money can buy. However, I think that for many having an American doctor is a prestige issue. The irony is that while a lot of poorer Mexicans cross the border to go back into Mexico for their healthcare, many affluent Mexicans are traveling the other way.
U.S. and Mexican border states are now scrambling to build cross-border medical tourism, realizing the enormous revenues that can be generated. The U.S.-Mexico border is uniquely positioned to build this industry of the future.