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Older New Mexicans Cross Border for Dental Care

They're taking advantage of Mexico's lower costs


(Editor’s Note: This article appeared previously on NMPolitics.net.)

At first glance, Puerto Palomas, Mexico, is the proverbial forgotten border town. Big pickups kick up dust on dirt side roads. Crowing roosters perk up the afternoon. Frolicking, stray dogs wander about the pueblo. But big historical developments have taken place in little Palomas, and continue doing so to this day.

Only yards from the international border crossing with New Mexico, a small plaza fronts a city hall, dominated by a statue of the Centurion of the North, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the Mexican revolutionary who in 1916 headed the last major attack on U.S. territory until Pearl Harbor, when his soldiers attacked the village of Columbus, N.M., about three miles up the road. More than a century later, the binational relations between Columbus and Palomas are far more cordial, solidified in good measure by the U.S. health care crisis and particularly its dental services component.

In “downtown” Palomas, dental clinics with English-speaking staff, serving a mainly elderly U.S. clientele, enliven storefronts. They’re joined by a sprinkling of pharmacies and optometry outlets.

“Make your teeth smile,” beams a greeting in English above the colorfully painted entrance to a dental implants business.

Good Quality Dental Care, Low Prices

On a recent day, Violet and Ronald Cauthon were taking a break in Palomas’ Pink Store from a dental appointment. Seasoned regulars of this town of an estimated five or six thousand souls nudged on the northern tip of Chihuahua state, the retired couple from Las Cruces, N.M., said their Mexican dentist, Dr. Oscar Perez, had over the years performed teeth cleanings, tooth extractions, a bridge replacement and a root canal.

Confessing that she and her 85-year-old husband don’t have dental insurance, Violet Cauthon said high U.S. costs motivate the hour-and-a-half drive from their home to the border town.

“We watch our pennies,” Violet Cauthon said. In addition to lower-cost dental care, she claimed significant savings at Palomas’ pharmacies — comparing, for example, a $50 bottle of medicine sold at a Walgreens with the $11 price tag in Palomas.

“It’s so much cheaper it’s ridiculous,” she said.

Ronald Cauthon praised his dentist. “He’s very professional,” the former bank loan officer said, recalling the aftermath of a complicated procedure. “I had no pain and came out and ate my lunch.” Added his wife, “We are part of (Dr. Perez’s) family and he takes care of us.”

Pinching Pennies

The Cauthons described how they suffered from pension raiders and, separately, lost half their savings in the popping of the 2001 stock market bubble. Subsequently, the transplanted couple downsized their lifestyle, even finding Medicare’s supplemental premiums too high for what is delivered, according to Violet Cauthon.

So in a penny-pinching economy, why do the Cauthons make the trip all the way to Palomas, considering more Mexican dentists are available in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, which is only about a 40-minute drive from their home?

“This is safer. This is more stable, and it’s not as big, of course. Part of it is they need the economic help here. It’s a poor town,” Violet Cauthon said.

The Las Cruces resident acknowledged that she and her husband stopped coming to Palomas several years ago after the so-called drug cartel wars devastated the small town, unleashing a spate of violence that included the murder of Palomas Mayor Estanislao Garcia in 2009. But like others interviewed in Palomas, she insisted that the public safety situation had stabilized.

An Uncomplicated Trip

Logistically, getting in and out of Palomas is simpler than a similar trek to Ciudad Juárez. For travelers arriving in their own car, a free parking lot is situated on the U.S. side of the border and the subsequent walk to any of the dental and health care related businesses in Palomas takes minutes. Crossing back into the U.S. on a late weekday afternoon, the reporter found he was the only person “in line” and was whisked through after the obligatory passport check.

In contrast, border parking in El Paso, across from Juárez, generally costs four bucks. The walk over the Rio Grande bridges takes longer and trips to dental and medical providers in the inner reaches of the city necessitate a vehicle, though several companies and clinics advertise free transportation from the U.S. side. Pedestrian and vehicular lines in Juárez-El Paso aren’t normally as bad as a few years ago, but long back-ups from the still understaffed U.S. border inspection stations crop up at times.

Older Adults Are the Majority of Patients

Decked out in his work duds, Dr. Oscar Perez gave the reporter a short tour of his clinic. No advance appointment had been made, and Perez was notified less than an hour before the visit of the request for an interview. The tour revealed a clean, recently expanded facility where 15 people find plenty of work.

An easy conversationalist with a semi-bushy black beard, Perez recounted coming to Palomas in 2001 from Guadalajara, where he graduated from a local university but found opportunities limited in a city legendary for spawning many of Mexico’s doctors and dentists.

“In Guadalajara, there’s a clinic on each corner,” Perez quipped. The border dentist defined his specialty as root canal therapy but added he “will do everything.” Perez estimated he sees up to 240 U.S. patients a month, with 95 percent of them older adults. And he knows his clients well: Eighty percent of them are from New Mexico, principally Las Cruces, with the remainder split between Arizona and Texas.

“We look at our patients like they are our grandparents,” Perez said. “We treat them with the greatest warmth.” The Mexican dentist extolled the financial advantages of using his service, which he said hover around 30 to 35 percent of U.S. prices.

Keeping a lid on prices, he said, are lower costs for labor and materials such as titanium implants, which international companies now produce from expired European patents. The quality is the same as in the U.S., Perez insisted, but varied international pricing schemes lower the price tag in Mexico. “It’s like a car,” he mused. “It’s the same car in the U.S. or Mexico, but costs differently.”

Getting Them There

For nearly two years, one Santa Fe-based business, Beyond Borders Dental, has shuttled patients from north-central New Mexico to Palomas and Dr. Perez. An estimated 80 to 90 percent of Beyond Borders Dental’s clients are more than 60 years of age, said Terri Heeter, company president.

“We’ve had a few younger people come in but most of them are older,” she said.

Currently, Beyond Borders Dental averages two vans a month to Palomas and makes occasional trips to Ciudad Juárez as well. Heeter and company will also arrange for individual visits for New Mexicans and others who contact it from out of state. The company maintains a website with background information, estimated costs and business terms.

Heeter is a fan of word of mouth as the best promotional method, exemplified by one client who got a $50,000 estimate for a job in New Mexico but ended up getting the work done in Palomas for less than $4,000.

“She was ecstatic, and she’s referred a lot of people to us,” Heeter said.

This article was written with the support of New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Silver Century Foundation.

By Kent Paterson
Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region and a fellow in the 2017 Journalist in Aging Fellowship Program. Enlisting a diverse cross-section of journalists from across the United States, the program is sponsored by the Gerontological Society of America and San Francisco-based New America Media.

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