Juarez’s medical tourism plummets as bridge wait times grow

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JUAREZ, Mexico (KTSM) — Once a thriving part of the city’s economy, many doctors’ offices and dental clinics here are reporting a flurry of cancelations as well as a steep drop in clients — and they blame it on longer wait times at the international bridges.

Since January, business has been down between 30 and 40 percent along Juarez’s medical tourism corridors south of the bridges leading to El Paso, Texas, said Lorenzo Soberanes Maya, head of the medical cluster at the Juarez Chamber of Commerce.

“The wait times to return to El Paso are discouraging enough, but the rumors about a possible shut-down of the border account for most of the no-shows to scheduled medical appointments and surgeries,” Soberanes said. 

He was referring to last month’s threat by president Trump to close the border with Mexico if that country doesn’t stop Central American migrants heading to the United States.

“People who’re coming from Northern New Mexico, Arizona or Colorado don’t want to risk becoming stranded here,” he said. 

U.S. officials have attributed the longer vehicle and pedestrian processing times on the surge in migrants from Central, South America and the Caribbean who come seeking asylum. Customs and Border Protection officers who would otherwise man inspection stations at the bridges have been assigned to deal with the asylum seekers.

On Tuesday, not a single patient from El Paso had shown up at Martha Elena Munoz’s ‘Consultorio Medico’ on Lerdo Avenue.

“We used to have a lot of patients from El Paso and Las Cruces, but they’re not coming anymore. The wait times at the bridges are hurting us a lot,” she said. “This is not only bad for Juarez, but also for El Paso. People from Juarez don’t go over there, either, and many businesses in (Downtown) El Paso have closed.”

A few doors over from her business, a plastic-surgery clinic has closed. Across the street, two dental clinics are trying to weather the storm.

“Some of our patients are saying they will come back when the bridges to El Paso are no longer as crowded… things have gotten worse in the past four weeks or so,” said Dr. Hugo Flores, who runs Dentos Juarez clinic on Lerdo.

Seven out of 10 patients at Dentos are from the United States, and Flores estimated his losses at about 20 percent.

I understand they (U.S. authorities) don’t have sufficient personnel for the situation they are encountering right now. We hope this situation gets resolved quickly,” he said.

So does David Jerome, president and CEO of the El Paso Chamber.

“Talk about closing of the border and about tariffs on Mexico brings uncertainty to our region. We are going to do everything in our power to reduce the wait times and to make sure the border doesn’t close and that these tariffs are not applied,” the El Paso business leader said. “Anything that hurts trade with Mexico hurts both sides of the border; it’s bad for El Paso and it’s bad for Mexico.” 

Bargain-basement prices

Medical tourism is one of Mexico’s multi-billion-dollar industries and one of the main lures of border cities like Juarez, Tijuana and Laredo for American visitors. 

According to the web page of Patients Beyond Borders, a medical travel organization, in 2016 medical tourism contributed $4.6 billion to Mexico’s economy. The reason? Cheaper prices. 

The same surgery, dental work or cosmetic procedure costs 60 to 70 percent less in Mexico than in the United States, Soberanes said. Those savings bring entire families from places as far as Denver, Phoenix or San Antonio to Juarez. Most often, those families lack medical, dental or vision insurance in the United States.

“Often we see entire families who spend all day on the road, stay at a hotel and are at the dentist’s office at 8 a.m. the following day. They stay until 2 p.m. and everybody sees the dentist — mom, dad and their two or three children,” Soberanes said.

Mexican immigrants now living in El Paso are also loyal customers of Juarez medical providers and take advantage of bargain-basement prices.

“You can come see a doctor here next to a pharmacy for 50 pesos ($3.50) and you can see a specialist in a private office environment for 600 to 800 pesos ($35 to $45). We are talking about seeing a cardiologist. a neurologist or a gastroenterologist at a very affordable price in a non-rushed environment,” Soberanes said.

At Washington Dental on Lerdo Avenue, a conventional crown costs $195, compared to $600 to $900 in the United States, said Felix Granillo Salinas, one of the managers.

“A cleaning costs you $30 here, whereas over there (the United States) it’ll run you over $100 without insurance, and most of our clients don’t have dental insurance,” Granillo said.

The most popular services at Washington Dental are extractions, crowns, root-canal surgery and basic services such as cleanings, he said.

“We do implants, including the crown, for no more than $1,800. Over there, you would pay $3,500 to $4,000 and most insurance policies don’t cover the procedure,” Granillo added.

Roberto Saucedo, of El Paso, makes a trip to Apple Dental on Juarez’s Americas Avenue twice a month for long-term dental work. He said he’s had to adjust to longer wait times at the international bridges.

“Sometimes I leave the truck in El Paso and walk because otherwise, it’ll take me 2-3 hours to go back. I keep coming to Juarez because they have good service, a good reputation and good prices,” he said. “I will continue to come despite the long lines at the bridges.”

Taking drastic measures

Juarez’s medical providers are trying to stem their losses by cutting into their profits in order to keep people coming.

“What medical providers strive for here is loyalty. Some are providing transportation to and from the international bridges. Some are even picking people up in El Paso or providing an Uber driver once they cross the bridges,” Soberanes said.

“Lately, they are even providing courtesy rides to hotels or restaurants, if the procedure will take several hours or more than one day.”

Washington Dental is now even picking people up at their homes in El Paso, manager Granillo said.

“We have six or seven air-conditioned vans that we use, and we’re trying to get access to the designated bus lanes at the bridges so that we can take people back faster,” he said.

And the Juarez chamber is trying to reassure potential visitors that this border city is safe to visit. Juarez at the turn of the decade gained a reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous cities due to a protracted war among rival drug cartels.

The chamber is working on a database of certified medical providers, transportation services, eateries near doctors’ offices and hotels. 

“We want to assure out-of-town patients that we not only have trustworthy quality medical providers, but also safe hotels, transportation services and restaurants,” Soberanes said.

As for an end to the long wait times at border crossings, Soberanes quoted a Mexican saying.

“No illness can last 100 years,” he said, forcing a smile.

Check bridge wait times

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