New Hospitals Near Border in Mexico Offer Cheaper Treatment Options for Americans

November 20, 2008

(ChattahBox) — While many people have crossed the border to Mexico to buy cheap medication few probably have considered undergoing complicated medical procedures there—at least, not until now. Medical tourism, which used to be mainly for elective surgery, and aimed at people who could afford weeklong trips to one of the many hotspots throughout the world, is becoming an increasingly viable source of more basic health care.  The industry grossed an estimated $60 billion in 2006 and is expected to hit $100 billion by 2012, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry and McKinsey and Co. Generally, people travel to foreign countries for better deals on procedures ranging from breast implant surgery to in vitro fertilization cycles, or for access to experimental surgeries that haven’t been approved at home.

In America, where 47 million people are uninsured and many millions are underinsured, merely need to cross the Mexican border to find treatment that can cost half or less of what it does in the United States. As American hospital chains are starting to buy into Mexico; with Dallas-based CHRISTUS Health has built six hospitals in Mexico, through its partnership with a Mexican chain. Most of its doctors are Mexican with Mexican medical degrees.

The Mexican health-care option is particularly appealing for Texans because the state has such a high uninsured rate; it was 25 percent in 2004. Along the border, that number is even higher. Incomes in the area are low, too, so even when employers do offer insurance, the cost of medical premiums still may prohibitive for employees, according to a 2007 report prepared by Texas state authorities.

And though hospitals on the U.S. side pour hundreds of millions of dollars a year into charity care, they and other community health centers are strained. The Hope Family Health Center in McAllen—right across the border from Reynosa—sees from 50-100 uninsured patients a week, but always has a waiting list, says interim executive director Rebecca Ramirez, who adds that she has some family members who will drive to Mexico for their medical care.

Older Americans who live near the Mexican border have always crossed in search of dental care and pharmaceutical drugs, neither of which are fully covered by Medicare. This growing demand for lower-cost procedures is fueling an increase in hospital construction, often in developing countries and targeted in part at foreign customers. Mexico’s largest private-hospital chain, Grupo Empresarial Angeles, is building 15 new hospitals over the next three years and hopes foreigners will make up 20 percent of their patients by 2010, up from 5 percent now.

American chains are getting into the act, too: International Hospital Corp. in Dallas has five Mexican locations, one close to the American border. And CHRISTUS, which bought a majority stake in Mexico’s Grupo Muguerza in 2001, has grown a two-hospital chain to eight hospitals nationwide. CHRISTUS representatives say they’re expanding to benefit Mexican patients but remain very aware of their increasing American clientele.

Insurers are looking into cross-border health care, as well. For years, Southern California’s Blue Cross Blue Shield has offered a cross-border health insurance plan that grants drastically reduced premiums to patients who get certain procedures performed in Mexico. But not all proposals have been met with excitement: Texas state Sen. Eddie Lucio, who represents counties including Cameron and Hildago, last year proposed a bill that would have allowed U.S.-based insurers to cover health services in Mexico for Texans living within 75 miles of the border. The bill didn’t make it out of committee.


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