On Friday, March 3, four American citizens took an unexpectedly common journey to Mexico, one of them hoping to obtain a medical procedure across the border. Soon after driving through the Mexican city of Matamoros, they faced cartel gunfire, and all four were subsequently abducted. When Mexican officials finally found them, two were dead. The cartel associated with these killings has apologized, and five of its members have been arrested.
The whole affair, however, raised concerns surrounding the phenomenon of “medical tourism” — the process of traveling abroad in order to undergo medical procedures for less cost. According to the Mexican Council for the Medical Tourism Industry, nearly one million Americans travel to Mexico each year to undergo medical procedures that would be prohibitively expensive in the United States. This is despite the fact that border towns, including Matamoros, are among the most dangerous medical tourism destinations. Many of these procedures, including cosmetic, dental and other medical surgeries, are far less expensive in Mexico, and American citizens risk their safety because they cannot afford the prices of medical care in the United States. According to the Associated Press, the price of a tummy tuck surgery in South Carolina could cost anywhere from $7,000 to $9,000, while in Matamoros the same surgery may only cost between $2,500 and $4,500.
The killing and abduction of the four citizens has brought to attention not only the dangerous circumstances surrounding medical tourism but also the outrageous prices of health care in the United States. Traveling long, unsafe distances to other countries simply because health care is too expensive is unheard of elsewhere around the world, especially in places that guarantee their citizens government-funded, public health care. According to Johns Hopkins University, “Americans on average continue to spend much more for health care — while getting less care — than people in other developed countries.”
Especially after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, more Americans will be putting their lives at risk simply because they cannot afford health care — especially reproductive care — within the United States. Women are already traveling across state lines in order to get abortions, which is especially the case for poorer women in southern states that have outlawed abortions — and the potential criminal risks involved have put many in danger as well. Not only is there a threat from cartels or other dangerous organizations, such as what occurred in Matamoros, but many of these medical procedures are often less safe because “quality and safety standards, licensure, credentialing and clinical criteria for receiving procedures are not consistent across countries and hospitals. If surgeries are conducted in substandard conditions, for example, the risk of poor results or complications is higher.”
America’s health care system is broken. No one should have to travel long distances simply because the health care system in their country is too expensive or inaccessible. In a 2019 Gallup poll, nearly 25 percent of Americans said they delayed getting medical treatment for a serious illness purely because the costs of treatment were too high, and even more Americans have trouble paying bills or totally covering the costs of their medical care altogether, leaving travel as the last solution for health care. Even those who have medical insurance sometimes must travel because their insurance will not cover many of the costs associated with medical care in the United States.
An obvious solution to the ever-increasing problem of the cost of health care in the United States is to introduce government-funded universal health care, as many countries across the world have. According to a study done by the National Institute of Health in 2020, establishing a system of universal health care in the United States is not only economically practical but may be less expensive than the single-payer system we currently have in place. Providing citizens with affordable health care is something that many countries have already instituted, and the United States continues to lag behind by not implementing such a system.
A major reason that the United States has not yet adopted universal health care is political pressure and the insurance and pharmaceutical lobby. The Republicans in the U.S. Congress mainly oppose a nationalized health care system on the basis that it would raise taxes — but only for the wealthiest people in this country. Attempting to institute a nationalized health care system will not be an easy task, as many politicians are against it and will have a hard time getting it through the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Despite this, however, steps are currently being taken within the United States to lower the cost of some drugs, including the recent cap on insulin prices. Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, one of the largest producers of insulin supply in America, announced that they were going to curb the inflation of insulin prices. Additionally, the Biden administration has introduced legislation in an effort to force pharmaceutical and insurance companies to lower the cost of insulin.
While the United States is moving in the right direction toward alleviating some of the problems with the health care system, the measures being instituted simply do not go far enough. It’s time that America followed the rest of the world’s lead and established a health care system that works for everyone so that medical tourism and situations like the one that occurred in Mexico do not become the norm.
Samantha Rigante is a freshman majoring in philosophy, politics and law.