On a recent Saturday morning, a group of strangers gathered in the parking lot of the Boulevard Mall in Las Vegas. There they boarded a van with Baja California, Mexico license plates that would take them to prearranged dentist and doctor’s visits in the Mexican border town of Mexicali.
The new monthly van service from Las Vegas is subsidized by the Mexicali tourism board. The cost for each patient is just $30 round trip. As they buckled up, the patients were greeted by Andres Mendoza, a volunteer from Las Vegas and Mexicali native who coordinates the trips.
“We are going to have like five hours driving to Mexicali, Mexico, and we expect like 100 degrees,” Mendoza said. Five hours turned out to be optimistic; the trip will take almost seven with stops. The four patients on board heard about the trips through word of mouth, or were recruited by Mendoza, who promotes the trips on Spanish language radio.
“I'm one of those Americans without any healthcare, cause it’s just been too expensive for me to carry any kind of program,” said patient Walt Michaels, a self-employed 62-year old. Michaels plans to take advantage of this van to take care of dental work he needs done over several trips, though on this visit, his eye is the priority.
“One day, I woke up and couldn’t see out of my right eye,” Michaels explained. “I'm going down here to get a diagnosis of what I need to get done with it.” Behind him sat Oscar and Isabel Menendez, a couple originally from Honduras who prefer to speak in Spanish. Isabel needs crowns for her teeth, and her part time job in a Las Vegas hotel doesn’t provide health insurance.
The last time she got a teeth cleaning in Las Vegas she says she paid $350. The Mexican dentist she is seeing charges only $70. “It seems like good medical attention, in comparison with where we live in the United States, in Las Vegas,” said Oscar Menendez, who is an unemployed welder. “If you don’t have insurance, it is really tough.”
This is the couple’s first trip to the Mexican border, and they are wary of its violent reputation. “I’m a little bit scared, because of everything that you hear and see on the television news,” Isabel Menendez said.