Mexico is quickly transforming its border cities into catch basins for millions of bargain-hunting and uninsured Americans.
* Arizona retirement communities now organize regular bus tours for Mexican dental work and inexpensive drugs.
* New hospitals have opened in Tijuana, because some U.S. health plans have begun covering services in Mexico.
* And tiny border communities, some about an hour from Ciudad Juarez, are becoming dentistry boomtowns to handle an ever-growing flow of American patients flying in from as far away as Alaska.
* In a recent University of Texas study, 86 percent of low-income El Paso residents surveyed -- half of whom were illegal immigrants -- said they receive medical care or buy prescription drugs from Mexico.
* Similarly, a study published in the Pan-American Journal of Health found that more than 37 percent of uninsured New Mexico border residents get medical care in Mexico.
Earn money in the U.S., spend it in Mexico.
What a novel idea.
Americans travel to Mexico for stomach surgery, eye exams and routine checkups. But it is the "dentistas" -- thousands of them strung along the border -- who are in the vanguard in attracting U.S. health consumers:
* Mexican dentists often charge one-fifth to one-fourth of U.S. prices.
* Their operating costs are substantially lower than those in the United States, and because the Mexican legal system makes it almost impossible to sue them, they don't have to worry about high malpractice insurance premiums.
No med mal. That certainly saves money but not enough to account for 75%+ discount off the cost of services.
But is it safe?
The phenomenon has unsettled U.S.-based dentists, who tell horror stories of rampant infections, undetected cases of oral cancer and shoddy work south of the border -- claims hotly disputed by Mexican dentists. Rick Murray, executive director of the Arizona Dental Association, said he recently talked a friend out of taking his son to Mexico for treatment.
And this . . .
"Mexico!" Gloria Hunt remembers one pal saying. "You can't even drink the water down there."
Kinda makes you wonder . . .