Forum explores health care in Mexico for Americans

Health care reform, when fully enacted, will provide an estimated 30 million uninsured Americans with access to medical coverage. But where will cost-effective services come from to meet the needs of this influx of patients into the medical system? Part of the solution could be south of the border.

That’s the goal of government officials, medical providers and the private section in Baja California who have joined forces in a coalition to enhance and promote cross-border health care to U.S. retirees living in Mexico (many of whom return to the United States for health care), baby boomers (looking to manage health care costs) and Southern California’s large Latino work force (who are comfortable crossing the border and familiar with the culture).

“Cross-border health care may turn out to be a blessing to California,” said Frank Carrillo, chief executive of SIMNSA Health Plan at a daylong conference on April 21 sponsored by the Institute of the Americas, on the UCSD campus. SIMNSA is the first Mexican HMO to be licensed as a health-care service plan by the State of California and sells group insurance to U.S. employers whose workers receive medical care in Mexico.

In addition, there are 500,000 people who cross the border annually for medical check-ups, surgery, dental work, or to fill prescriptions.

“The aim is to increase that number,” said Oscar Escobedo, Baja California’s tourism secretary.

In order to do so, a number of issues need to be addressed. Among them: Long waits at border crossings (in both directions) and concerns for personal safety.

Steps taken to mitigate these challenges include access to a fast lane at the border, with a wait time of 20 minutes or less, for individuals receiving medical services in Mexico.

Acknowledging that violence south of the border is a major concern, plans are being discussed for the creation of a medical tourist zone near the border that would offer increased security, better signage, and additional comfort.

“The United States is a country of choices and freedom,” said Carrillo. “Cross-border health care is a viable option.”

To assure Americans of the health care quality in Mexico, a certification process for Mexican doctors is already in place and accreditation of private hospitals is underway. This will also play a role in any discussion of extending Medicare benefits for services received south of the border. Mexico President Felipe Calderón is expected to present a proposal on the topic to President Obama, when the two meet in Washington in May.

“Congress is not going to approve Medicare for Mexico until (it is) very comfortable that the quality of medical care is there,” said Paul Crist, president of Americans for Medicare in Mexico.

Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.