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A Joyride Through Mexico's Healthcare System

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When I tell my friends in America that I'm having a baby in Mexico City, they often gasp with contained horror. What they don't realize is that as the Democratic candidates line up with vague plans about how to fix America's broken managed care system, in Mexico they already have a private system that is truly first class.

I visited a doctor once in the U.S. during my pregnancy. I never saw the doctor, only a nervous resident who forgot to tell me my due date and asked me twice if I was trying to get pregnant, despite having just thrown up in his office bathroom. Meanwhile, back in Mexico, my septuagenarian physician, flanked by a giant wooden crucifix, spoke with me for an hour and gave me his home phone number.

Most agree that the U.S. health care system is broken. What few may realize is that just to our south, in a country where we're building a wall to keep our neighbors out, they've got a much more functional system in place. The right to health care is written into the constitution. And under new legislation, all Mexican babies born since December are guaranteed medical care.

This is not to say that there are not problems here. For those who depend on the public system, care is often inadequate, especially in poor, rural areas. However, for Mexicans with the means to afford private doctors and private hospitals, the options are staggering.

I'm not wealthy by U.S. standards. My husband and I are freelance journalists. But medical costs in Mexico haven't spiraled out of control like they have in the U.S. -- a typical office visit costs around $40 out of pocket here. In the U.S., that was my co-pay, after my $200 monthly premium.

In the U.S., I spend hours waiting in overcrowded waiting rooms for a five-minute checkup. Here doctors give me their home phone number, cell phone, e-mail and pager. My doctor will deliver my baby, regardless of the time of day. Some even make house calls.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I embarked on our first hospital tour where a svelte tour guide in a pinstriped suit greeted us with a glossy brochure called "Club de Cuna" or Cradle Club. We sat down to read, flanked by an indoor waterfall. Would I like a cesarean package, which comes with three nights stay? Or, would I rather take the vaginal delivery route, with a two-night stay? Or, I could pay a la carte, which might be worth it if my spouse would rather sleep at home, saving me about $40 a night.

And then come the upgrades.

The tour guide -- young, cheerful, focused -- led us through several sprawling recovery rooms with expansive views of Mexico City. The largest of the set -- for $130 more a night -- included a large dining table and a wraparound sofa.

"Is cable included?" I joked, glancing at the television suspended from the wall.

"Of course!"

Of course! Because delivering a baby in Mexico is a family affair. Expect your room to burst at the seams with la familia, an endless stream of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins.

In our birthing class, the teacher warned of the dangers of too many guests. "It is important to get your rest and get to know your new baby," she advised, a novel thought in a country that never misses an opportunity for a fiesta. "Birth is not time for a party."

However, even a system eager to lure in your business has its drawbacks.

When I asked my guide if the hospital offered a lactation consultant, she cocked her head. "Yes?" she answered uncertainly. Could I see the nursery? "It is closed for the moment. It reopens at 2." Did the hospital have a neo-natal care unit? Of course! Could I glance at it? No.

Choice -- a word trumpeted by George W. Bush -- really means something in Mexico. In the U.S., changing doctors requires a call to the insurance company and sifting through a list of "in-network" and "out-of-network" providers. Here, I just pick up the phone and make an appointment.

I found a hospital that would let me see the medical facilities, including the labor room and neo-natal care unit, but it wasn't on my doctor's list. So, at eight months pregnant, I switched physicians. "Isn't it too late for that?" asked my sister in Los Angeles.

In Mexico, it is never too late. Switching between private doctors is a little like changing hair stylists: you feel slightly guilty leaving your old obstetrician for a new one, but it doesn't take more than a phone call to do it.

I'm naturally a finicky person, never certain if I've made the right choice. In a world of endless options, I'm unstoppable. I've researched six obstetricians since I've been pregnant, been examined by four of them, and switched doctors three times.

When I tell people in the U.S. that I'm having my baby in Mexico, the first question I get is, "Is the medical care any good there?" I can hear the anxiety in their voices. How could I give birth anywhere but in America?

I'm beginning to wonder how anyone would birth in America.

Retirees flock north to Canada for affordable prescription drugs. Why Americans aren't heading south to give birth is beyond me. It seems like a much better choice.

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