Tooth and consequences - Page 3

Americans can't afford dental care, so they're fleeing to risky clinics across the border
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Photo by Pat Mazzera

Ten minutes later, she came out again, read off three names, and then told everyone else to go home.

The room had been quiet as we all waited to see who'd won, but when a young blond girl with designer jeans and a fancy cell phone rose to claim her prize, the atmosphere became tense.

"That's fucking bullshit," said a man with dirt on his face and ripped boots. "I've been coming here for weeks. This is her first fucking time!"

One of the dentists apologized and reminded us that we were welcome to keep trying as many times as we liked. I took his advice and returned three more times, missing a day of study or work for every fruitless visit until I gave up. One of my teeth in the back had started aching like hell, and I couldn't stomach the wait any longer.

I broadened my search to include dental schools like that at the University of California San Francisco, where the wait times were rumored to be long, but once on the list, getting work done was guaranteed. After talking to students at the UCSF clinic, though, I realized treatment would require several days off from work and school because each step a student made during surgery would have to be approved by a busy professor and analyzed by other students. And the discount wasn't exactly phenomenal.

The average cost of a single complete root canal procedure (root canal, post, and crown) at UCSF is more than $1,100, almost twice the amount I wound up paying in Mexico and way more than I could afford at the time.

So I scrapped the dental-school idea and dug deeper, figuring that if I couldn't find free or cheap dental work, I could at least find a place that offered a payment plan. And I did find such a place.

Western Dental is like the McDonald's of dental clinics. With multiple locations in almost every city in California, it's effectively cornered the market on affordable dental work. Only it's not cheap. A complete root canal procedure on one tooth can cost up to $1,590 — a lot less than a regular dentist, but much more than a dental school and about three times as much as Dr. Lopez charged me in Mexico. People flock to Western Dental because it lets you pay off your dental work like you would a car. You plunk down $99 for a yearlong membership, make a 20 to 30 percent down payment, and then pay the rest off monthly over the course of one year. And Western Dental doesn't take your credit history into account when working out a plan.

Out of desperation, I eventually did get one of my teeth fixed at the Mission and 24th Street location, and wound up paying a $350 deposit and monthly installments of $110 for the next 12 months.

CAVITY CAVEATS

With my most painful tooth taken care of, I could now focus on finding a better deal, which is how I wound up in Mexico. So far it seems to have been a pretty smart decision. My new teeth look great and they're holding up fine. I was treated extremely well by Dr. Lopez's staff. But there are many reasons not go to Mexico for cheap dental work. And Brad Hatfield, a Korean War vet and retired city planner from Arizona City who asked that I not use his real name, knows them all.

Hatfield has been making the three-hour trip to Los Algodones for nearly a decade. He's seen the town evolve from a haven for cheap trinkets and booze into what it is now: a medical resort for Americans with expensive tooth and eye issues. Hatfield started going to Los Algodones when he realized that even with his insurance he'd never be able to afford necessary dental work. But now, many years and thousands of dollars later, he's learned his lesson.

"The problem with dentistry in Mexico," says Hatfield, "is that there's no recourse. If something bad happens, you can't sue anyone. All you can do is ask for your money back." And that's just what Hatfield did when he returned from Los Algodones recently and discovered that his new teeth were worthless.

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