Across the border

ACROSS THE BORDER…. A conservative project called “Patients United Now” started running a television ad last week, featuring a Canadian woman who said she came to the United States to be treated for brain cancer, because in Canada, she would have had to wait six months to see a specialist. The point of the ad is to condemn Canada’s system, and by extension, attack the health care reform effort underway in Washington.

After all, if Canadians are coming to the U.S. for care, then the status quo in the U.S. must be pretty good, right?

There are, of course, more than a few problems with the argument, not the least of which is the fact that the Democratic approach to reform bears no resemblance to the Canadian system. But if we’re taking the argument at face value, what does it say about our system when people in the U.S. travel to Mexico for care?

Nearly a million Californians, perhaps hundreds of thousands more, cross the border to Mexico every year because they cannot afford the rising cost of health care in the United States, according to UCLA researchers.

The study by the school’s Center for Health Policy Research, published Tuesday in the journal Medical Care, affirms what has long been suspected — that the untamable cost of medicine is forcing many, particularly Latino immigrants, to look outside California for medical and dental care. As casualties from the recession rise and as budget-strapped government programs eliminate health services, more people are expected to head south to fill prescriptions, get teeth fixed or undergo care for chronic illnesses.

According to the study, at least 952,000 California adults — 488,000 of them described by the study as Mexican immigrants and about a quarter as non-Latino whites — head south annually for their medical, dental and prescription services.

The number seeking care in Mexico may actually be much larger, because findings are based on 2001 data from the California Health Interview Survey and do not take into account today’s higher rates of unemployment and the increasing rate of the medically uninsured.

Gil Ojeda, executive director of the California Program on Access to Care, which is housed at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, added, “We suspect the number has grown by leaps and bounds.”