Health tourism—traveling to another country for more affordable health care—has been an interest of mine for some time. I haven’t done it (yet), but many others have.
Last week I read an article in The Atlantic about the trend for Americans living near the Mexican border to seek dental care in Mexico. The story highlights one dentist, Dr. Jessica Nitardy, who lives in El Paso, TX, and commutes every day to her dental practice in Juarez, Mexico. Although married to an American, Dr. Nitardy was born and schooled in Mexico. Even so, the majority of her patients are, like herself, from the American side of the border.
A dental implant that runs $1,500 in the U.S. costs just $549 in her office. Crowns and bridges, two of the most expensive dental procedures, are also a third of the price.
Pair that with an El Paso hotel at $100 per night, and Nitardy’s patients still save a bundle. She even sends a complimentary car to pick them up at the airport. (Most patients are unnerved by the thought of an overnight in Juarez, even though the city is much safer now.)
Why is dental care in Mexico less expensive than in the US?
Nitardy’s costs are low because rent in Mexico is cheap, and so is labor. She pays her assistant $100 a week, a generous salary by local standards. She said she’s not required to carry malpractice insurance, which is another huge cost for American providers.
And across-the-border dental care is not necessarily worse care (remember, there are poor dentists in the US, too). Judging by the comments on the article, many people have sought dental care in Mexico and had very positive experiences.
Going to Mexico is certainly not practical for routine dental exams and preventive care, especially if you don’t live within a short distance from the Mexican border. However, if you are looking at extensive dental work that could cost several thousand dollars, a Mexican getaway might make financial sense.
Dental patients who live close to an international border form the majority of dental health travelers. US citizens living in Arizona, California, and Texas can easily cross the border into Mexico, an hour’s drive can save them thousands of dollars in dental costs. Canadians and US citizens along the East Coast, from Maine to Florida, are flocking to Costa Rica. The dental clinics of San José are only a short hop from Miami, and the dentistry is generally excellent, at costs 50-80 percent lower than those in the US.
Patients Beyond Borders allows you to search for specific medical and dental procedures and get an idea of how much they would cost in other countries. The website also helps you decide if seeking treatment outside of the country is best for your specific situation.
Dental insurance is inadequate
People are expanding their search for affordable dental care because the costs, like medical care, keep getting higher. And compared to medical insurance, especially the new Obamacare plans that have a pretty robust definition of minimum coverage, dental insurance in this country has been and continues to be subpar.
As The Atlantic article points out, almost half of Americans don’t have dental coverage. I’m one of them. Why?
- Premiums for individual plans are pricey: For families that have few dental needs, the cost of annual premiums usually exceeds the cost of paying cash for typical preventive services.
- Waiting periods are long: Preventive services usually don’t have waiting periods, but almost any other dental service does. Crowns, extractions, root canals, dentures, etc. can have waiting periods of 3 to 12 months, depending on the plan and the premium (lower premium = longer waiting period). Who wants to wait 6 months for a root canal?
- Annual maximums are low: Deductibles are usually quite low ($50-$150) compared to medical insurance, but annual maximums are really low, too, typically about $1000 per person. So even after you wait 6 months for that root canal, the insurance will only pay a maximum of $1000. Depending on what you are having done, you could still be out of pocket hundreds or thousands of dollars.
If you don’t have dental insurance and are unwilling to travel out of the country, your best bet is to keep your teeth healthy!
Most dentists are willing to negotiate on price, too, if you ask. For cash-paying patients, I highly recommend the website The Self Pay Patient and/or the book The Self-Pay Patient: Affordable Healthcare Choices in the Age of Obamacare.
Last year I posted about another great website, Brighter, which is an online dental referral service. What I especially like about it is that you can compare prices for specific dental procedures (for example a root canal) within a zip code. Prices for dental care can vary A LOT, so this website is a wonderful tool to help you find a price within your budget. You can also compare qualifications and customer reviews for each dentist. Sadly, as of now it’s only available in the greater Los Angeles area.
I hope more websites such as Brighter will appear for different areas of the country (mine, for example!). This kind of easily-accessed pricing information would go a long way in helping consumers save money on dental care.