Fac­ing ris­ing den­tal costs, Amer­i­can se­niors head to Mexico


Mark Bolz­ern trav­eled 6,000 kilo­me­ters (3,700 miles) to go to the den­tist. The 56-year-old An­chor­age, Alaska, na­tive left home this spring, made a pit stop in Las Ve­gas to pick up a friend, and kept head­ing south, all the way to Los Al­go­dones, Mexico, a small bor­der town teem­ing with den­tal of­fices.

About 60 per­cent of Amer­i­cans have den­tal in­sur­ance cov­er­age, the high­est it has been in decades. But even so, the na­tion’s older pop­u­la­tion has been largely left be­hind. Nearly 70 per­cent of se­niors are not in­sured, ac­cord­ing to a study com­piled by Oral Health Amer­ica. A ma­jor rea­son is be­cause den­tal care is not cov­ered by Medi­care and many em­ploy­ers no longer of- fer post-re­tire­ment health ben­e­fits. What’s more, the Af­ford­able Care Act al­lows en­rollees to get den­tal cov­er­age only if they pur­chase gen­eral health cov­er­age first, which many se­niors don’t need. At the same time, se­niors of­ten re­quire the most costly den­tal work, like crowns, im­plants and false teeth.

As a re­sult, many are seek­ing cheaper care in places like Los Al­go­dones, where Mex­i­can den­tists who speak English and some­times ac­cept U.S. in­sur­ance of­fer rock­bot­tom prices for ev­ery­thing from a clean­ing to im­plants. Den­tists in Los Al­go­dones say a large por­tion of their clients are se­niors.

In the desert out­post near the bor­der of Cal­i­for­nia and Ari­zona, men in white shirts stand out­side of of­fices with signs advertising root canals and teeth clean­ings. Other signs ad­ver­tise pre­scrip­tion drugs like mus­cle re­lax­ers at low rates — no pre­scrip­tion needed.

For Bolz­ern, see­ing a den­tist in Los Al­go­dones meant a sav­ings of up to US$62,000. He was told the ex­ten­sive den­tal work he needed — his teeth needed to be raised and he needed a crown on ev­ery mo­lar — would cost US$65,000 at a pri­vate den­tist. He looked for lower rates, find­ing a den­tal school where the work was less ex­pen­sive be­cause it was per­formed by stu­dents. But it still cost US$35,000.

He paid US$3,000 in Mexico and has been back sev­eral times.

The cost of den­tal care has surged in the last two decades and con­tin­ues to in­crease at a rate of 5 per­cent an­nu­ally. Many den­tal plans have high de­ductibles and don’t of­fer ex­ten­sive cov­er­age. Many peo­ple opt out.

Mexico has lower costs be­cause of cheaper la­bor and fewer reg­u­la­tory re­quire­ments. Res­i­dents in bor­der towns like El Paso, Texas and No­gales, Sonora, of­ten make the short drive to the Mex­i­can side for ba­sic med­i­cal needs and pre­scrip­tion med­i­ca­tions that are much costlier in the U.S. Some busi­nesses even of­fer shut­tle ser­vices from the Phoenix area to Los Al­go­dones, a nearly 350-kilo­me­ter ride.

Go­ing abroad for cheaper health care is noth­ing new. Amer­i­cans have been do­ing it for years, for ev­ery­thing from elec­tive, cos­metic pro­ce­dures to ma­jor, life-sav­ing surgery.

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