Published On: Sat, Oct 22nd, 2016

Americans drawn by the allure of low-cost medical care in Mexico

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Reporter Barrett Newkirk analyzes the appeal of health care in Mexico in this article from the Palm Springs Desert Sun.

When Vic Yepello has a toothache he doesn’t call any of the dentists listed in page after page of the phone book. He calls Mexico.

When the day of the appointment comes, he hops in his car and drives east, going far beyond any of the dental offices within a few miles of his Palm Springs home. He heads south and eventually farther east. About three hours and 165 miles later, he parks in a lot that costs him $6 a day and then walks the final 300 feet across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Yepello, a 70-year-old real-estate agent and cycling nut, has made the journey to Los Algondones four times in the last 15 months. The village, wedged up where Mexico meets California and Arizona, has earned the nickname “Molar City” by catering to thousands of foreigners a year — mostly Americans — who come seeking deals on fillings, crowns and false teeth. While they’re there, many also stock up on cheap prescription drugs and eyeglasses.

For an appointment last May, Yepello left home before 7 a.m. Including one pit stop on the way, he arrived in Los Algondones with plans to have his teeth cleaned, shop for glasses and buy some heavy-duty ibuprofen.

The trip was a follow-up to a root canal and a crown he had gotten six months earlier. Lately, a tooth above that dental work had begun to feel sore.

“So I’m just going to have them X-ray that, take a look and it and see if there’s something going on there,” Yepello said during the morning drive.

Palm Springs resident Victor Yepello makes a day trip to the Mexican border town of Los Algondones for a follow up on his root canal with his dentist. (PHOTO: The Desert Sun)

Palm Springs resident Victor Yepello makes a day trip to the Mexican border town of Los Algondones for a follow up on his root canal with his dentist. (PHOTO: The Desert Sun)

After a relatively brief stint in the exam chair, some time spent popping into the eyeglass shop and pharmacy, and a break for lunch in the village, he made it back home in time for dinner with his husband.

It’s hard to say how many people make similar trips each year, but the number from California alone is easily in the hundreds of thousands if not millions. More than 6 million private vehicles (a number that excludes buses) entered Mexico from the U.S. in 2015, but border authorities aren’t counting how many people in all of those cars and trucks are making the trip for medical reasons.

In Southern California, if people haven’t gone to Mexico for health care, they probably know someone who has. People overburdened by the price of getting what’s supposed to be some of the best health care in the world are willing to seek out options that would have seemed overly risky not long ago. And while more Americans now have health insurance than ever before, the high price of seeing a doctor, dentist or filling a prescription have not slowed the annual growth in the amount of money Americans spend on health care in foreign countries.

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