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For heart surgery, head for the border?

The cost of health care

TEXT OF STORY

Steve Chiotakis: There can be a really big price tag when you get sick. And the health care bill that passed Congress could help later in the spring. But one organization in Tijuana, Mexico, thinks it may already have the key to affordable health care.

Reporter Kevin Ferguson has more.


Kevin Ferguson: For decades, Americans have headed south to Mexico for cheap prescriptions and dental work. But a liver transplant? Or back surgery? Most patients say "No, thanks."

Patrick Osio wants to change their minds.

Patrick Osio: Outside of the United States, there are more American students in medical schools in Mexico than there are anywhere else in the world. And they certainly go back and practice medicine in the U.S., and so the training that the Mexican doctor receives is top notch.

Osio is vice president of the Baja California Medical Tourism Association, which formed in 2008. The organization is sort of a mix between a PR firm and an accreditation service. It reviews and certifies health care providers in Baja California, and refers American patients to the region's hospitals and doctors -- places like Excel Medical Center in Tijuana.

From the inside, Excel looks like your average American hospital: High-tech equipment, spotless floors. Jose Hernandez is CEO of Excel and a cardiovascular surgeon. He says given our nation's political and trade partnerships, Mexico's American's best option for medical tourism.

JOSE HERNANDEZ: We could be more accountable, if it's a bad result to whatever happens to the citizen in the United States.

Hernandez says many of Excel's patients are uninsured Americans. People like Duane Walker of San Antonio, Texas. When he needed a triple bypass, he contacted a medical tourism group called WorldMed Assist. Not long after, he was on a plane to Tijuana.

Duane Walker: We knew the doctors involved were U.S.-trained and were
quite competent. We really didn't have any reservations in that regard.

Walker saved almost $100,000 on his heart surgery. But Judy Dugan of Consumer Watchdog say there's no way to know how safe these procedures are.

Judy Dugan: I mean, the medical facilities can look gorgeous, the
doctor's credentials can look good, but really, you can't tell.

Dugan agrees that the choice is up to consumers, but as domestic health care costs continue to climb and companies try to save money, that might soon change.

In Tijuana, I'm Kevin Ferguson for Marketplace.

Chiotakis: Tomorrow, Kevin reports employers are starting to warm to the idea of medical tourism for their employees.

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