Border Town Targets Underinsured For Medical Tourism
Walt Michaels of Las Vegas receives an eye exam in a Mexicali ophthalmology office.
Jude Joffe-Block
May 21, 2012

MEXICALI, MX - On a recent Saturday morning, a group of strangers gathered in the parking lot of the Boulevard Mall in Las Vegas. There they boarded a van with Baja California, Mexico license plates that would take them to prearranged dentist and doctor’s visits in the Mexican border town of Mexicali.

The new monthly van service from Las Vegas is subsidized by the Mexicali tourism board. The cost for each patient is just $30 round trip.

As they buckled up, the patients were greeted by Andres Mendoza, a volunteer from Las Vegas and Mexicali native who coordinates the trips.

“We are going to have like five hours driving to Mexicali, Mexico, and we expect like 100 degrees,” Mendoza said.

Five hours turned out to be optimistic; the trip will take almost seven with stops.

The four patients on board heard about the trips through word of mouth, or were recruited by Mendoza, who promotes the trips on Spanish language radio.

“I'm one of those Americans without any healthcare, cause it’s just been too expensive for me to carry any kind of program,” said patient Walt Michaels, a self-employed 62-year old.

Photo by Jude Joffe-Block
A new, subsidized van service takes Las Vegas residents to the border for medical care.

Michaels plans to take advantage of this van to take care of dental work he needs done over several trips, though on this visit, his eye is the priority.

“One day, I woke up and couldn’t see out of my right eye,” Michaels explained. “I'm going down here to get a diagnosis of what I need to get done with it.”

Behind him sat Oscar and Isabel Menendez, a couple originally from Honduras who prefer to speak in Spanish. Isabel needs crowns for her teeth, and her part time job in a Las Vegas hotel doesn’t provide health insurance.

The last time she got a teeth cleaning in Las Vegas she says she paid $350. The Mexican dentist she is seeing charges only $70.

“It seems like good medical attention, in comparison with where we live in the United States, in Las Vegas,” said Oscar Menendez, who is an unemployed welder. “If you don’t have insurance, it is really tough.”

This is the couple’s first trip to the Mexican border, and they are wary of its violent reputation.

“I’m a little bit scared, because of everything that you hear and see on the television news,” Isabel Menendez said.

Still, they are hoping for the best, as they’d like Mexicali to be their new destination for medical care.

“It will be an adventure,” Isabel Menendez said. “And a vacation at the same time.”

When the group finally arrived in Mexicali, the city’s tourism director, Omar Dipp, met them in their hotel lobby.

According to Dipp, the Mexicali area, which includes the dental hub of Los Algodones, earned an estimated $16 million from medical tourism in 2010. His office is trying to boost that by 50 percent in the next year or so.

“The main objective is attracting more tourists, who will come and take care of their medical needs down here, and make their experience down here more likeable and then make you even stay a little bit longer,” Dipp said.

His office is vying for more tourists from the Southwest, such as the Coachella Valley, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Mexicali-Calexico

Mexican officials hope a new lane to speed border crossings for medical tourists will lead to a boom in business.

Dipp’s office initiated the van service in Las Vegas, since the city is close enough to drive to Mexicali in one day, but far enough away that visitors would want to spend the night in a hotel. Plus, demographic trends in Las Vegas suggest there could be interest in cross-border medical care.

“Vegas is a big Latin community,” said Dipp, who noted that the majority of medical tourists to Mexicali have Latino heritage. “And the lack of medical coverage in Nevada, that is another important factor.”

A recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 1 in 5 Nevadans have unmet medical needs due to cost. The same study found that healthcare access declined in virtually every state over the last decade.

One of the tourism board’s challenges is to counter American perceptions that the border is dangerous, and that Mexican medical facilities aren’t to be trusted.

Dipp is quick to tell anyone who will listen about a ranking that placed Mexicali high on the country’s list of safest cities. He spreads this message, along with brochures showing modern, private hospitals with English-speaking staff, at health expos across the Southwest. His office has also created a directory of certified doctors, dentists and surgeons in the Mexicali area to help foreign patients choose practitioners.

But all the marketing aside, what is really bringing the patients is the cost factor.

“From the crisis, the economic crisis that is going on through the U.S., we are getting a lot more patients coming over here to tend to their medical needs,” Dipp said.

Yet service wasn’t perfect for Walt Michaels -- his eye appointment was delayed.

It was evening by the time Michaels met his young, confident doctor in a sleek clinic that looked more like a trendy art gallery than a hospital.

The doctor made up for his tardiness with a professional manner and a thorough exam. He used a number of modern looking machines to test Michaels’ eyes, and then displayed pictures of Michaels’ retinas on a video monitor.

“Ok, can you see this ones?” asked the doctor to Michaels during one test.

“Um, I can see the ‘N’,” Michaels responded. “I dont know what is to the left.”

The doctor concluded that Michaels has cataracts. Michaels agreed to return in a few weeks to do the surgery with that same doctor. It will be a major procedure, and he’ll spend days in Mexicali to get it done.

And that is exactly why tourism director Omar Dipp is investing in the van that brought Michaels here.

“We are betting long term here,” Dipp said. “We understand that even though if these patients just came for a small consult -- eventually they will be coming back on their own.”

Photo by Jude Joffe-Block
A tourism official stands in front of the new designated medical tourism lane at the Mexicali border crossing.

The next day, the patients pile back in the van, satisfied, with bags of medicines purchased from Mexican pharmacies at a significant discount.

When they pulled up to the congested border crossing, they found another incentive for the next visit: A new designated medical tourism lane for foreigners. The van entered the special lane, and zoomed past the bumper to bumper traffic on the Mexican side of the crossing.

Patient Walt Michaels was impressed.

“Unbelievable. We have what, five cars in front of us? We just saved ourselves three hours,” Michaels said.

Though there was still a very long day of driving ahead.