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A Lifetime of Healthcare in Mexico

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Healthcare in Mexico at San Javier Hospital in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Hospital San Javier Puerto Vallarta

Moving to Mexico has become both a dream and a reality for many Americans, Canadians and people from other countries; and not all are just retirees. We are attracted to the country’s low cost-of-living, beautiful beaches, majestic mountains and colonial towns, but fall in love with the people of Mexico and their culture. But one question always seems to be top-of-mind for most of us: what about a lifetime of healthcare in Mexico? Can it be trusted? And if, as everyone says, it costs so much less than what you would pay in the U.S. or Europe, does that mean you get lower quality care?

Surgeon in mask healthcare in Mexico
Credit: Draganajokmanovic | Thinkstock

The fact is nothing could be further from the truth. One of the biggest surprises about living in Mexico is not only the availability and affordability of healthcare services, but the high quality. From doctor visits to outpatient services and hospitalization, Mexico offers a standard of care and treatment that is often equal – and in some cases superior – to what you find in the United States and other developed nations. How is that possible, you ask?

Like so many things about living in Mexico, once you make the move you eventually dispense with any preconceptions you may have. As you already know if you live here, Mexico is not your typical developing economy and it is certainly not a third world country, especially when it comes to medical services. Its healthcare infrastructure includes more than 4,000 hospitals (the majority are public), top-rated private hospitals, sophisticated technology, private clinics, the entire range of laboratory testing services and physicians that are not only highly-trained and experienced in their specialties, but many are at the apex of their fields worldwide.

That does not mean everywhere you go in Mexico there is a top-notch hospital waiting for you. The best facilities along with the best physicians tend to be in the big cities like Mexico City, Monterrey, Guadalajara and others. And there are many inequities in healthcare delivery that mostly depend on where you live and whether you have private health insurance or are entirely dependent upon government-paid services at public facilities.

But in contrast with its neighbor immediately to the north, there’s no debate about healthcare being a right in Mexico. Mexicans enjoy access to healthcare at low or no cost from birth to death at publicly and privately funded facilities. Sure, there are problems, especially at some public facilities where waiting times for procedures can be long, infrastructure is often outdated and supplies and medicines can be short due to corruption and theft. But an expat with private insurance and access to Mexico’s many private hospitals and clinics can get a level of care and personal attention that explains why so many say they are never going back to dealing with the healthcare system in the United States.

Nurse checking a patient's pulse
Credit: Purestock | Thinkstock

And perhaps best of all, you don’t have to have private insurance to get good medical care in the country. Quite the contrary. The same publicly-funded healthcare program that covers many natives, known as the Instituto de Salud para el Bienestar (INSABI), is available to both temporary and permanent residents and covers most pre-existing conditions. Additionally, the insurance program for working Mexicans, referred to by the initials IMSS, is also available to foreigners who are legal residents of Mexico. The application process can be a bit daunting, and there are waiting periods for some preconditions and no coverage for others, but for just a few hundred dollars a year you’ll have access to public hospitals, and specialized clinics and physicians wherever you are in the country. And, there are no age limits.

Sound too good to be true? Just ask any expat that has had to have medical treatment in Mexico and you almost always hear the same chorus of praise. Sure, there are exceptions, just like there are anywhere, but more often than not what you hear is that doctors are more hands-on and spend more time listening to their patients than in the US. In fact, nearly 61 percent of respondents to a survey of U.S. retirees living in coastal areas of Mexico by the International Community Foundation said the quality of healthcare in Mexico was comparable to the US. Some 70 percent said it was affordable and accessible.

And when you drill down further, the picture gets even better. A typical visit with a general practitioner or specialist at even the most expensive private hospitals in Mexico City will run you between US$40 and $80. Physicians tend to spend more time listening to their patients than the typical consultation in the U.S. and some even make house calls. Many happily provide you with their cell phone number for emergencies or even a quick consultation via SMS or WhatsApp. I recently had a question about COVID-19 and my physician answered right away via WhatsApp, a very popular way to communicate in Mexico.

You pay less in Mexico for everything from office visits to lab tests and major medical procedures, and the reasons are fairly simple: lower salaries for physicians and healthcare workers, no student debt, no malpractice insurance and no third-party insurance companies soaking up pesos. In fact, the International Community Foundation said healthcare in Mexico is extremely cost effective, estimated at just 25-30 percent of equivalent costs in the U.S. It explains why Mexico is a major medical tourism destination. Heart surgery in Mexico, for example, runs between US$100,000 and $150,000 compared to US$350,000 and $500,000 in the United States. Joint replacements are US$20,000 in Mexico compared to $60,000 in the U.S., according to the foundation.

Unless you’ve been living on another planet, you already know about the lower cost of both brand name and generic prescription drugs in Mexico compared to the U.S. This massive and growing affordability gap has even prompted one state insurance program for public employees in the U.S. to pay them to fly to Mexico to purchase their prescription medications with a $500 bonus thrown in, according to ABC News.

Healthcare in Mexico at CMQ Hospital in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Hospital CMQ Puerto Vallarta

But the cost difference is only part of the story. There is a huge convenience factor when purchasing medications in Mexico that you may not have heard about. Unless you are purchasing a narcotic or an antibiotic, a prescription from a doctor is not required at most pharmacies. That means you can generally get as much of the medication as you want without returning to a doctor every 30 days to get permission to refill it. One friend of mine purchases his blood pressure medication for six months at a time, which is more than enough to cover a long trip or an extended visit abroad.

As we get older, we need more and more healthcare, and many expats retiring in Mexico struggle with whether to keep their Medicare coverage in the U.S., drop it and sign up for public healthcare in Mexico or simply pay their healthcare costs in Mexico out-of-pocket. Medicare does not cover medical fees in Mexico although some supplemental plans will provide emergency coverage.

Studies show that a growing number of U.S. retirees living in Mexico are opting out of Medicare since the monthly fees for both Medicare and the prescription and supplemental coverage plans really add up. But the bottom line is it is a highly personal decision that depends on your financial situation, overall health and comfort level with returning to the U.S. for major and sometimes even minor procedures.

Given the general excellence of healthcare in Mexico what you hear more from retirees who live here is a preference for staying in Mexico and paying out-of-pocket for medical costs as long as possible given the high level of satisfaction with a lifetime of healthcare in Mexico.

You can read additional healthcare in Mexico articles here.

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