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Latinos enrolled in Obamacare seek treatment in Mexico

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“At a 2009 press conference with the Mexican president and the Canadian prime minister,” wrote James Taranto in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “a reporter from Canada asked Obama ‘whether there are elements of the Canadian health care system … worth emulating.’" A report from Kaiser Health News in collaboration with USA Today suggests Americans under Obamacare are indeed taking a page out of the Canadian health care system.

In much the same way that residents of Canada will journey to the U.S. for a medical procedure that would require an absurdly long waiting time at home, Latinos along the border with Mexico are venturing south:

Irma Montalvo signed up for a health plan through California's new insurance exchange last month, getting coverage for the first time in eight years.

But when she needed treatment for a painful skin rash, Montalvo didn't go to a doctor near her home in Chula Vista. Instead she drove to Mexico, about 16 miles south. Her doctor, Cecilia Espinoza, diagnosed her with shingles and prescribed medication to relieve pain and head off complications.

Montalvo, 64, said she comes to Tijuana in part because it costs just $15 to see the doctor. She can't use her insurance for care outside California but it's still cheaper because she doesn’t have to worry about a deductible. More important, she said, is that she feels comfortable with Espinoza.

"She listens to me," said Montalvo, a U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico, said in Spanish. "I come here feeling really bad, and three days later I am better."

Mexican immigrants living in California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico have long sought health care in border cities like Tijuana, Mexicali and Nogales. The Affordable Care Act won't change that, experts said, even though it has expanded coverage to millions of people, including many Latinos.

Naturalized citizens and legal residents are expected to continue traveling for check-ups, minor surgeries and dental care, drawn to treatment that is less expensive and a medical culture that is less hurried. Doctors speak their language and patients often can get appointments without long waits.

In fact, it's possible even more U.S. residents may seek care with Mexican doctors, said David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the UCLA School of Medicine. Many Latinos in the United States live in areas with a huge undersupply of providers, and as new coverage increases the demand for care, waits for appointments could grow longer and more frustrating, he said.

Citizens leaving the country to avoid lofty deductibles and pay less out of pocket for treatment was not what the framers of Obamacare envisioned in their plan to extend health care —insurance, really — to the millions of Americans who lacked it. The White House has yet to breathe a word about the high deductible and copays consumers are encountering in policies obtained through the exchanges, but that’s because the President has no business acumen. He can call Obamacare “quality, low-cost health insurance” all he likes, but the American consumer knows better.

Suffice it to say that Irma Montalvo will not be standing behind the president the next time he stages a sales in the Rose Garden as a living embodiment of the health care law’s enduring success.

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