Medical Tourist

February 27, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
More Americans are packing their passports and their medical records for a trip across the border. They're not going on vacation, but to a doctor's office for everything from simple check-ups to surgery. What's driving "medical tourists" to Mexico and one valley man's message after a medical nightmare.James Dodd of Hanford boards a shuttle van for his latest trip to Tijuana, but he's not just a tourist on vacation. He crosses the border every few months to put his health in the hands of Mexican doctors who consider him not just a patient, but a friend.

Dodd says it's the personal treatment that brings him back to Bahanor Hospital for all his medical care.

"They care for you down there as a patient. Here, do you have insurance? That's it," said Dodd.

According to health care experts, James Dodd is part of a growing number of Americans called medical tourists who travel to other countries for treatments or procedures that are either not covered or are under-covered by their insurance companies.

Dodd, a retired Kings County Agricultural Inspector has become an advocate for alternative health care through his own experience.

Almost four years ago, desperate to lose weight at over 400 pounds, which Dodd blames on stress, the 54-year-old looked into lap-band surgery a drastic weight-loss procedure that restricts the stomach with an implanted belt. Dodd says his insurer, Blue Cross, considered it experimental and would not cover it. So he searched for a solution. "I couldn't pay for $37,000 they wanted in Fresno. And it was $7,200 in Tijuana," said Dodd.

Dodd had the surgery across the border and was so happy with the service and low cost, he no longer wanted to keep his Blue Cross insurance policy. Instead, he saved the money he would have spent on premiums to pay out of for all his medical care in Mexico including dental work.

But in the meantime, something went wrong with his Tijuana surgery.

When James Dodd developed a dangerous complication, he couldn't come to an American hospital because he had cancelled his coverage. Instead he took his life literally into his own hands and went back across the border. "I held my stomach together with my right hand and it was completely covered in blood and I held my thumbs out to keep blood from going to the outside so the Amtrak crew wouldn't stop the train."

Dodd spent four months back at Bajanor Hospital while doctors treated his wound that opened up.

Fresno surgeon, Dr. Angela Rodriguez says she treats patients like Dodd who suffer complications from operations in foreign countries. She says patients go blindly when they go abroad, "You have to know: What's the background of the specific surgeon who is going to take care of you? Number one. Number two, make sure the facility has the minimum requirements."

Despite almost dying from the complications, Dodd still trusts his doctors in Mexico. He says many of them are trained in the U.S., but it's their service that makes a difference. Dodd says they didn't charge him for all his after-care to fix the complications. By contrast, he says U.S. health care overcharges patients and over-compensates the system. "You go by these hospitals and see these $45,000 Lexuses and Mercedes in the doctor's parking stalls and it's all built on the backs of sick people." Health care is cheaper just across the border, and that means big bucks to the Tijuana economy. There are doctor's offices on almost every street, many of which cater to Americans who are medical tourists. As you cross the border there's a health clinic there with over 200 doctors and you look at the parking lot and it's filled with California license plates.

But U.S. health care experts warn; buyers beware. If something goes wrong, help is miles away.

California has more than 6.5 million un-insured people. The state senate last month killed Governor Schwarzenegger's sweeping plan to reform California's health care system, but lawmakers say they could still pursue parts of the bill including a cap on insurers' profits and a requirement that healthcare providers reveal their costs for procedures.


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