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Low-Cost Medical Care in Mexico Under Scrutiny

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Low-Cost Medical Care in Mexico Under Scrutiny

Health Care

Low-Cost Medical Care in Mexico Under Scrutiny

Low-Cost Medical Care in Mexico Under Scrutiny

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Tens of thousands of California workers get their medical and dental checkups, as well as major treatment and surgeries, in Mexico, where health care is cheaper. But while employers and their workers appreciate the lower costs, some worry about the quality of that medical care.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In California, some companies struggling with the high cost of employee health benefits have found a solution in Mexico. They're offering insurance plans that allow workers to get their health care south of the border at a fraction of what it would cost in the US. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

(Soundbite of traffic; vehicle horn)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:

In Tijuana's lively tourist area, it seems every other storefront advertises for cut-rate medicines and low-cost doctors. Blanca Ramirez, who's a registered nurse in Tijuana and San Diego, points to some of the clinics on Avenida Revolucion.

Ms. BLANCA RAMIREZ (Registered Nurse): Here they have surgery, general medicine, pediatrics, gynecology and X-ray.

DEL BARCO: On weekends especially, thousands of Latinos living in the US and other Americans flock to this district to visit doctors whose prices can be half as expensive as in the US. Patients often just walk in without appointments and pay cash.

Ms. RAMIREZ: They just see the patient as a dollar sign. `You're going to pay your visit, and I'm going to give you a prescription.'

DEL BARCO: Ramirez says patients may be taking risks with questionable, unregulated doctors. She's heard the horror stories of botched surgeries and medical complications.

Ms. RAMIREZ: These doctors here, they don't know if they're going to see you ever again. They don't know if you're going to ever come back. They don't even want to have your phone number because they do not want to contact you to see if the medication worked, if you had side effects.

DEL BARCO: But Ramirez is not against the idea of Americans crossing the border for health care. In fact, she works for Access Baja, Blue Shield's cross-border health plan. It features doctors and clinics that are audited and certified. Most are located in a more upscale part of town, the Zona Rosa neighborhood.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of blood pressure gauge)

DEL BARCO: At one Access Baja-certified clinic, 37-year-old Rodrigo Reya(ph) gets his vital signs checked by a nurse, then he chats with a doctor who asks him everything from `Where does it hurt?' to `How's the family?'

Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: Reya, who is a car lot attendant in San Diego, says he appreciates this kind of personalized care in his own language. So does Lou Suarez(ph), who works at the Coronado Marriott Hotel in San Diego.

Ms. LOU SUAREZ: Because I used to have a Kaiser over in San Diego, but you know, to see my doctor, my personal doctor, sometimes I have to wait over a month. They have to wait until you are dying so that way they can help you. Over here, attention to the patients is excellent. You know, they care about the patients.

DEL BARCO: Access Baja is one of three HMOs providing cross-border coverage for employees of California companies. Insurers estimate about 160,000 workers in California have signed up for the cheaper health care in Mexico. Dale Stanfaust(ph), who manages an exclusive golf club in northern San Diego, says he's glad to offer the plan to his workers.

Mr. DALE STANFAUST (Golf Club Manager): Really, it was a win-win situation for us at the club. We were able to diversify our benefits, help employees pick a more tailor-made health-care benefit and the Access Baja plan is much more affordable than the American-based health-care plans.

DEL BARCO: Insurance premiums with Access Baja, for example, cost about a hundred dollars a month, with co-payments of $5 a visit. But some health-care experts worry about the increasing reliance on cross-border coverage. Dr. Robert Ross is president of the California Endowment, a health-care philanthropy.

Dr. ROBERT ROSS (President, California Endowment): It's a deeply troubling irony that the United States boasts the most advanced--technologically advanced health-care system in the world, but the issues of cost and accessibility are driving Americans literally out of the country to seek health care.

DEL BARCO: Ross says he fears the trend may continue as long as health-care costs in the US continue to soar. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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