As more Americans go without heath insurance or feel the pinch of managed care, some are making a run for the border for treatment ranging from routine care to live-saving procedures.
Two North Texas-based hospital chains, Christus Health of Irving and International Hospital Corp. of Dallas, are tapping into a need and an opportunity by providing in their hospitals in Mexico what their executives say are the best of both worlds - U.S.-quality health care and relatively low Mexican prices.
"Our goal is to have the safest hospitals in the international market," said Cliff Orme, CEO of International Hospital Corp. "We're implementing U.S. standards into these hospitals so you won't notice the difference going to a hospital in Dallas than one in a Latin American country."
Some experts, including Peter Maddox of Christus Health, see Mexico as an answer to the complex question of how to treat aging and underinsured Americans at a time when the retirement of baby boomers will further tax the U.S. health care system. An estimated 43 million Americans, about 15 percent of the population, are uninsured, according to a Census Bureau study.
(A baby boomer is someone born in a period of increased birth rates, such as those during the economic prosperity following World War II. In the United States, demographers have put the generation's birth years at 1946 to 1964).
"Our country will go broke unless we find a health care alternative," said Mr. Maddox, Christus' senior vice president for business, strategy and corporate development. "Mexico is a wonderful alternative with incredible potential".
Indeed, Mexico is becoming a top destination for the multibillion-dollar "medical tourism" industry, joining countries including India, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. Experts estimate as many as 150,000 Americans travel abroad every year for lower-cost medical care.
Although care in Mexico may not be as inexpensive as care in some Asian nations, the proximity to the U.S. is a big advantage to patients. Some U.S. companies are now sending employees to Mexico for their annual checkups.
Underscoring the trend, Mexican state governments are spending money to refurbish communities near these hospitals, hoping visiting patients will stay there while receiving medical care or even move there permanently.
David Warner, a health researcher at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said the hospitals run by U.S. companies are primarily for Mexicans, but they also hope to attract medical tourism, Americans without insurance and Mexicans living in the U.S. "And they'd like to get some U.S. insurers to cover them," he added.
But Mexico faces serious challenges in trying to become a world leader in the medical tourism industry. A turf war among drug traffickers is keeping some tourists away. Monterrey, in particular, has seen a surge of drug-related killings in recent months.
"Their plans aren't worth a thing if it's not safe to come here," said Luis Moreno, U.S. consul general in Monterrey.
And Dr. Warner, the UT health researcher, said that surveys done by his students show that many Americans are pleased with the "tender loving care" they received in Mexico.
"I have patients coming here from Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio," said Michael Tarabay, director International Hospital Corp.'s Santa Engracia hospital in Monterrey. "Whether you leave from Dallas, San Antonio, Houston or Austin, it's about an hour plane ride, a 20-minute taxi ride, and you're here."
When Carrollton resident Brian Woods needed laser eye surgery last year, he scrutinized options in North Texas for the best deal.
McAllen resident Cesar Vega was concerned about the long wait he faced to treat his broken leg after a motorcycle accident during the weekend leading into the July 4 holiday.
Both ended up in Monterrey, Mexico. Traditionally, the city affluent residents have traveled to Dallas, Houston or San Antonio for their medical needs.
Woods, 43, a network engineer. U.S. doctors wanted to charge him $4,000, he said, but he paid only $1,500 in Mexico.
"People were very cordial, warm," Woods said of the experience. "They treated me very well, and I wouldn't hesitate returning for other medical procedures."
Vega's wife, Adriana, said the couple had a similar experience.
She frantically checked South Texas hospitals after her husband's motorcycle accident, but was told hospitals were short-staffed before the holiday weekend. When. Vega was examined, he was told he would have to wait more than 72 hours for treatment for his broken leg, she said.
The exam alone cost $1,000, she said.
Furious, Ms. Vega told her husband, "We're going to Monterrey."
Once there, he was immediately admitted and operated on, she said. "I drove back to Texas two days later".
The couple paid about $4,000 - one-third of what she was told the treatment would cost in Texas.
"I thought the quality was the same as any U.S. hospital," she said. "What really stood apart, however, was the service. The Mexicans were much more cordial, warmer. Here in the U.S., everyone is worried about being sued, especially doctors. No one seems to smile."
Mexico is on average 40 percent cheaper for basic surgical procedures, it is pointed out.
A bill in the Texas Legislature sponsored this year by Senator Eddie Lucio, a Democrat, would have allowed U.S.-based insurers to cover health services in Mexico with the goal of making policies affordable for uninsured groups like the working poor. There was also a House version of the bill.
Coverage would have been limited to Texans who live within 75 miles of the border. The bill did not get out of committee.
"We have a crisis right now," Lucio said in an e-mail. "There are simply too many residents in Texas lacking health care coverage. Cross-border health plans present an opportunity to increase our rates of private health insurance coverage, particularly in an area of high poverty and greatest need."
Cross-border health insurance plans typically cost 40 percent less than traditional policies, he said.
"Cross-border health plans have been effective in California, and the primary concern for me is how we can address the lack of health care coverage along the border," he said.