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Medical Tourists Can Speed Through U.S.-Mexico Border Crossing

A tourism official stands in front of the new designated medical tourism lane at the Mexicali border crossing.
Jude Joffe-Block
A tourism official stands in front of the new designated medical tourism lane at the Mexicali border crossing.

The Mexican border town of Mexicali is making a push for more tourists from the American Southwest to visit that city's dentists, surgeons and doctors. Starting April 30, medical tourists from the U.S. with the right documents will be able to skip much of the wait on the Mexican side of the border by using a new designated medical tourism lane.

Mexicali's tourism director, Omar Dipp, says the new lane is one part of the city's plan to boost medical tourism by 50 percent.

"So you can drive to Mexicali, take care of your health, and you can only do 20 minutes to cross the border instead of two hours," Dipp said.

Foreign patients will be able to request a pass from Mexican doctors who are participating in the program. That pass, plus a doctor's receipt and foreign license plates, will allow patients access to the special lane. Once in the lane, vehicles are supposed to be able to bypass the traffic on the Mexican side of the border crossing, and cut to nearly the front of the line.

Dipp's office is doing outreach in Arizona, Nevada and California to persuade more residents there to visit Mexicali doctors in an effort to boost economic development in the city.

"The medical tourism income is really widespread; it is not just the income received by the doctors," said Dipp, noting that patients who come to the Mexicali area for affordable medical services also stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, use taxis and attend shows.

A van transporting medical tourists from Las Vegas was the first vehicle to pass through the new medical tourism lane in a special inaugural run at noon on April 29. An employee with Mexicali's tourism board stationed at the border crossing removed the orange cones in front of the designated lane when the van approached, and opened a yellow gate to allow the van to pass. Since the medical lane was empty, the van sailed by the bumper-to-bumper traffic stalled in the two regular lanes.

At the end of the special lane, the tourists waited about 20 minutes to be inspected by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent.

"Unbelievable," said Walt Michaels, a 62-year old patient on board who was returning to Las Vegas after consulting with an eye doctor in Mexicali. "We just saved ourselves three hours."

Yet the shortcut only pertains to the wait on the Mexican side, since medical tourists can still be subject to delays from U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. The group from Las Vegas waited more than forty minutes for American agents to complete a secondary inspection.

The new lane is modeled on an established tourism lane at the San Ysidro Port of Entry linking Tijuana and San Diego.

Because of some reported abuse when that Tijuana-San Ysidro lane opened, Mexicali tourism officials are requiring participating doctors to sign a contract with the tourism board to ensure they only give passes to foreign patients who are crossing the border. Each pass will cost the doctors 50 pesos, or about $4.