TOPICS > Health

Retirees Flock to Mexico for the Sun and the Health Care

December 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Thousands of Americans are increasingly traveling to resort towns like Puerto Vallarta, in Mexico, not for vacation, but for the cheap health care. In many cases, reports Ray Suarez, for care they couldn't afford in the United States.
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GWEN IFILL: Now: As the health reform debate plays out in the U.S., some Americans are finding new ways and new places to get medical care.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: South of the border, tourist season is just beginning. Beach-loving Americans are headed to Mexico’s seaside towns, reaching for the sunscreen and soaking up the local color.

But this year’s annual migration has a twist. Thousands of Americans are coming to places like Puerto Vallarta, not to dip their toes in the warm Pacific, sip a margarita, or browse a crafts fair. No, they are coming for health care, in many cases, care they could never afford to acquire in the United States.

DR. MAX GREIG: Tell me how you feel today.

STAN PACKARD: A lot better, oh, yes, wonderful.

RAY SUAREZ: Fifty-five-year-old Stan Packard flew to Puerto Vallarta to have his hip replaced.

DR. MAX GREIG: You know, it’s going to take about six to eight weeks before you can feel really comfortable with yourself. This only has been two weeks.

RAY SUAREZ: We caught up with him at the follow-up appointment with his Mexican orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Max Greig.

Had you ever been to Mexico before?

STAN PACKARD: Never. No, I just took a shot.

RAY SUAREZ: A pretty big step to take on your first trip to Mexico. You go fly down and come back with a new hip.

STAN PACKARD: Something had to be done.

RAY SUAREZ: Packard and his wife own a horse park in California that specializes in carriage rides. Caring for all the horses is a physically demanding job. And one of Stan’s hips just didn’t hold up. For years, it was causing him pain. But the Packards don’t have health insurance.

STAN PACKARD: When they told me I was for sure going to need a hip, then I knew I couldn’t afford it in the States. So, we started looking. In the States, they said it was $80,000 to $120,000.

DR. MAX GREIG: Pretty soon, you will be able to walk around without your…

STAN PACKARD: Without that?

DR. MAX GREIG: … your walker.

STAN PACKARD: Just the cane?

RAY SUAREZ: Packard went on the Internet and found a Texas-based company called MedToGo. It lead him to the Dr. Greig’s practice in Mexico, where Stan paid $13,000 for all travel and medical expenses.

Were you a little scared?

STAN PACKARD: I have never been in a hospital, you know, under surgery. I had never a broken arm, nothing. So — but I knew the pain I was having before I got here was unbearable. I wanted it done more than I was scared.

Hey, thanks, Doctor.

DR. MAX GREIG: All right, Stan, you have a great trip back there, OK?

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Greig operates on more aging baby boomers every year. They choose Mexico for joint replacement surgery, not just for the cost savings, but also for the comforts of a city like Puerto Vallarta that already caters to tourists.

DR. MAX GREIG: We have a whole team that receives them at the airport. We make sure that they get accommodated in hotels and that they are transported from the hotels to their different appointments or to the hospital.

And then, after the surgery, once they are released from the hospital, we have nurses and physical therapists that visit them in their hotel. And this way, they can recover in a beautiful place, looking at the swimming pool, looking at the palm trees.

RAY SUAREZ: Greig is a member of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and touts his state-of-the-art facilities.

DR. MAX GREIG: We are using the same implants, same prostheses, same technique, but, here, we have a great advantage. We don’t have the liability costs as you can find in U.S. I pay, as a orthopedic surgeon, about one-tenth of what a — my colleague in the U.S. would pay for malpractice insurance.

RAY SUAREZ: And with one million U.S. citizens now living in Mexico, many of them retirees, private hospitals now advertise American-standard facilities.

Ten thousand Americans live in Puerto Vallarta, so many that local expats here are holding a series of town hall-style meetings about Medicare benefits.

PAUL CRIST, Americans for Medicare in Mexico: We all know that Medicare won’t cover your health care expenses when you are outside of the United States. And we have to ask, why not? And the fact is, there is no good answer to that question. Would it cost more to cover you in Mexico? No.

RAY SUAREZ: A group called Americans for Medicare in Mexico is lobbying Congress to amend Medicare rules to allow for health care coverage in Mexico, where medical costs are much lower.

PAUL CRIST: It would cost the Medicare program about half as much to cover you here as it costs to cover you in the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Former Senate staffer Paul Crist, now a Puerto Vallarta hotel owner, is leading the campaign.

PAUL CRIST: I think it is a great deal for the taxpayer. I actually see this as a win, win, win, win. And I will tell you why.

First of all, it is a win for the retirees that live in Mexico and for the retirees that want to retire to Mexico. It is a win for Medicare because it saves money. It is a win for the Mexican economy because an influx of retirees will create jobs, good jobs, in Mexico.

RAY SUAREZ: But, with Americans already consumed by a debate over health care reform, the campaign may have a tough time getting attention in Washington.

In the meantime, some retirees are taking advantage of the insurance offered by the Mexican government’s social security system, called IMSS, or IMSS. For only $300 a year, Americans who can establish residency are offered an array of medical services with no deductible.

Susan Wichterman retired to Puerto Vallarta 12 years ago and now teaches yoga here. She signed up for the Mexican social security health plan as a backup, but soon suffered an arm injury, which required multiple surgeries.

SUSAN WICHTERMAN: All your specialists. I have seen traumatologists. I have seen gynecologists. I have seen psychiatrists. It is all paid for. Too good to be true.

RAY SUAREZ: But there are limitations to Mexico’s government plan. Anyone with a preexisting condition is excluded. The facilities are not cutting-edge. And if you are not in need of urgent care, the lines are notoriously long.

DR. MAX GREIG: It’s always overloaded with patients. There’s hundreds of people waiting on waiting lists. Surgeries are — there’s waiting lists for surgeries for up to about six months. And, so, it’s a system that you have to wait it out.

RAY SUAREZ: The social security program was originally set up for Mexican workers. But, so far, foreigners have been welcome. Just over 1,000 Americans in Puerto Vallarta alone are now enrolled.

Dr. Eduardo Montero is director of the IMSS Hospital in Puerto Vallarta.

Dr. EDUARDO MONTERO, director, IMSS Hospital in Puerto Vallarta (through translator): The motto at IMSS is social security for all. And, as far as the enrollment of foreigners, I don’t see a problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Even so, some health officials here worry that uninsured Americans could quickly overload an already burdened system.

But, as far as foreigners coming to pay for services on their own, industry leaders are embracing that idea. There is even talk of building assisted living and nursing homes here, so foreigners can capitalize on Mexico’s cheaper labor market.

Economic analysts say more than one million patients worldwide cross international borders annually for medical treatments. And places like Puerto Vallarta seem eager to host them.

GWEN IFILL: In his second report tomorrow, Ray will examine how the Mexican government is trying to improve health care for its own poorest citizens.