Wednesday, May 19, 2010
SAN DIEGO The trouble with getting affordable health care in the U.S. has caused many people to look south for solutions. This isn't surprising in San Diego, where the medical resources of Mexico are within a half-hour drive.
A recent day-long conference, at the Institute of the Americas on the UCSD campus, was called "The Future of Health Care in Mexico for Americans." That title serves as a good introduction for Frank Carillo, president and founder of the Sistemas Medicos Nacionales, S.A. de C.V. Health Plan (SIMNSA) because that's what SIMNSA does. It provides Mexican health care to people who live on the American side of the border.
"This option is not really intended for everyone," said Carillo. "It is intended for people who are familiar, and who understand and trust the system of care there."
But there's one thing about Mexican health care that would appeal to most any consumer: The low cost. Carillo said his premiums are 60 percent less than you'd typically pay for an American health plan. People who pay out of pocket may save up to 80 percent by choosing care in Mexico.
And cost is not the only thing that creates demand for Mexican health care among Americans. For Americans who live in Mexico, the appeal is convenience. Tens of thousands of retirees have settled along the Baja California cost.
There's at least one more thing that makes Mexican health care attractive.
At a Hillcrest coffee shop, I spoke with Maria, who asked I not use her last name. Maria emigrated to San Diego from South America and she routinely crosses the border for medical treatment in Tijuana. Maria has gone there to visit a general practitioner, a dermatologist and a neurologist.
"There is the cultural thing, of course, where I can speak my main language and come across better with them," she said. "But there is also the cost and there's also, more than anything for me, is the time that they take with you."
Maria pays out of her own pocket to see doctors in Mexico, even though she has an American health insurance policy. She says Mexican doctors are less likely to be in a rush, and less likely to rely on drugs as a solution to health problems.
Dean Stalcup is one of the American ex-patriots who lives in Rosarito Beach. He said most of his American neighbors are retired. When they have to see the doctor they generally cross the border into the U.S. to use their insurance or their Medicare benefits, which can't be used in Mexico.
Stalcup said older Americans are more comfortable with the American health care system, but he tells of one ex-patriot who had prostate surgery at Tijuana's Hospital Angeles, where he stayed for two days. It only cost him $1,500 for good care, good service, and a fairly plush single room.
"He described it as being quite a large room," said Stalcup. "Private room. Private bath. Nice little sitting area. And they had presented him with a bottle of wine upon arrival. So I thought that was kind of an interesting thought."
But for people who live in the U.S., using Mexican health care typically relies on close proximity to the border and personal connections that can help you navigate health care in a foreign country.
Some companies have worked to established networks that can make the process easier. The SIMNSA health plan, which claims 80,000 subscribers, is one of them. Another is Sekure Healthcare, run by CEO Jim Arriola. He said Sekure works with businesses that are looking for cheaper ways to provide health insurance for their workers.
"We're focused on low-wage workers, Hispanic workers. Latino workers who want to get their health care in California as well as the option to get care down south of the border," said Arriola.
Partnerships with Mexican clinics are already a reality, and they are already making health care more affordable and accessible for San Diegans. Meanwhile, the Baja California government sees medical tourism as a source of revenue. Baja's secretary of tourism says half a million people cross the border every month for doctor visits and trips to the dentist. And he'd like to see that figure double.