Michael Owen was nervous when he walked across the U.S.-Mexico border for dental care.

Despite being part of a group and traveling with a new business called Beyond Borders that escorts patients to appointments, there was some trepidation.

“Especially after I sat in the chair,” the 68-year-old Santa Fe retiree recalled.

It helped that the dentist, Oscar Perez, and his staff spoke English and Owen ended up having a consultation, not a dental procedure. Owen and Perez agreed to try and treat a jaw disorder before moving ahead with as many as five crowns Owen said he needs on his teeth.

“He set up a treatment plan. He’s going to bring in a specialist,” Owen said. The dentist took impressions of his mouth and scheduled a visit for next month. “He spent an hour and a half with me and charged me $20,” Owen said. “Going across the border was no problem — you just walk across — and within a block and a half was the dental clinic.”

New Mexicans have long gone to Mexico for lower-cost health care, but Beyond Borders might be the first company to make it simple. It vets the clinics, schedules appointments, makes lodging arrangements and will even drive patients to the border and walk them to the waiting room, which takes about six minutes.

The concierge service from Santa Fe is $250. “We will hold your hand every step of the way,” said Ralph Grosswald, the chief executive officer of Beyond Borders.

The company’s clients are people looking for more affordable dental care. And he said they can save up to 80 percent by having the work done at one of the clinics in Puerto Palomas across the state border from Columbus, N.M.

The New Mexico Dental Association has some concerns about seeking dental treatment in Mexico.

“It’s certainly possible to get good care in Mexico or other places. But it is not always consistent, especially in Mexico,” said Tom Schripsema, a dentist and director of the association. He cited “different standards” or “lack of standards” in licensing and added, “We see quite a varying level of quality of care,” ranging from good to “really dismal.”

Schripsema agreed that prices are lower there, but said there are a number of factors that drive up dental costs in New Mexico, including the gross receipts tax, insufficient Medicaid coverage and, he added, “safety net services are drying up a bit.”

But he said patients considering treatment in Mexico should ask dentists about their credentials and specialty training. They should also inquire about the materials because “all golds are not created the same.” It might be good to inquire about the labs the dentists use, as well, because “the quality isn’t always consistent.”

It is also important to know what happens if you are not satisfied,Schripsema said.

Cost was the reason why Grosswald considered going to Costa Rica last year for three crowns. His wife, Terri Heeter, also needed a crown and some cosmetic work. Between the two of them, they were facing over $6,000 in dental bills.

Neither felt comfortable seeking treatment in Juárez, because of safety issues, but then they learned that friends of friends had been going to Palomas for decades, and they decided to give it a try.

The total cost of their care was $920, a savings of nearly $5,000, Grosswald said.

On the way home, they talked about how satisfied they were, how convenient it was to go to Mexico rather than India, Thailand or Costa Rica, and decided other people would like to do the same thing. He said they had the right combination of skills to put the enterprise together. Heeter owned a successful tour business in Egypt for over 20 years, and Grosswald is a longtime entrepreneur.

And, Grosswald said, “We have a very personal commitment to making dental care available to as many people as possible.”

Beyond Borders began by interviewing a number of dentists in Palomas. They checked their licenses, looked at things like their sterilization procedures and how they package their tools and clean up. Grosswald said they also wanted to find clinics in which U.S. patients would feel confident and comfortable.

Currently, they are working primarily with two clinics and 10 dentists. “They totally meet U.S. standards,” Grosswald said, and the offices are modern with English-speaking staff. One of the clinics has been providing service to Americans for 28 years and another for 16, Grosswald said. Specialists come in from outside Palomas.

Any procedure that can be done in the United States — partial bridges, implants, root canals, crowns, cosmetic work — can be done there, he added.

Beyond Borders will pick a patient up in its 12-passenger van in either Santa Fe or Albuquerque for the drive to Deming, where clients usually spend the night. The company has a partnership with the Hampton Inn for $75 rooms.

The following day, patients are shuttled to Columbus, and someone from Beyond Borders walks them across the border and the short distance to the clinic’s waiting room in Palomas, a small, safe town of about 5,000 people. Beyond Borders strongly recommends that patients travel with their passports, but a number of people say they only showed their New Mexico driver’s license.

Crossing the border never takes more than about eight minutes and because the town’s economy depends on Americans, they are very welcome there, Grosswald said.

As soon as they arrive, people say they know they are in Mexico, even though many signs are in English. A vendor might be selling honey or piñon nuts from his pickup on the main street, which is just a continuation of N.M. 11 from Deming. There are dental offices on practically every corner, as well as on side streets, along with little pharmacies, furniture and clothing stores and several optical shops.

Mariachi music emanates from The Pink Store, a block from the border. Americans pack the restaurant there and shop for jewelry, pottery and clothing. It’s similar to Jackalope in Santa Fe, but the prices are lower, said Mary Langdon, an experienced international traveler who went to Palomas for two root canals and brought along a bag of apples for people she met there.

Depending on the treatment plan, some patients might need to return for subsequent visits. Many use the self-service option in which Beyond Borders will schedule appointments, but patients get to the clinics on their own. Langdon said she and her husband camped at the border on her second trip when they came with their niece, a turkey farmer from Arkansas, who needed three extractions, three root canals and a deep cleaning.

Beyond Borders began making test runs in May and first started taking patients along in June. The company is providing concierge service about twice a month, but that is likely to increase. According to Grosswald, they are getting 25 to 30 calls a week from people who are interested in their services. The majority are in their 60s and 70s.

Many see this as a good option, noting that Medicare does not provide coverage for most routine dental procedures and few have dental insurance. Private plans do not cover enough of the out-of-pocket costs, Grosswald said, although he advises clients to check with their insurance companies about whether they will accept services rendered in Mexico. If so, the clinics will provide the code numbers to fill out the forms, but they will not process them.

Clients generally pay in cash or by personal check.

Owen said dentist Perez spent time talking with him and decided to bring in a specialist for the jaw, instead of doing the crown work right away. “I found it very comforting. His take on what was going on made a lot of sense.”

When he returns, Owen will also ride down in the van, and the transportation price for a return trip is half-price.

He said Palomas is not like other border towns. “It’s quite small very different from Juárez, Tijuana. Almost everyone I talked with down there spoke English.”

Santa Fe retiree Abram Lovato, 70, also will have to return to Palomas to finish work on a crown, but he feels secure enough to make his own appointments. He has family in Las Cruces and can drive down with a friend.

The retired forest industry worker had a root canal and now needs a crown. His Santa Fe dentist was going to charge him $4,000 for one tooth. In Palomas, that cost will be about $1,000, not counting gas and time driving. He also will need to have a cracked tooth extracted and replaced with an implant and expects to pay $2,200 in Mexico, versus $7,000 to $8,000 in Santa Fe.

“When I was in the workforce, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the time,” he said. “I have more time than money now.”

Lizann Wisdom knew there were good options across the border there because her New Mexico parents used to get dental care in Juárez, although she wouldn’t go there now.

Wisdom, who worked for a Texas dentist for 10 years and was looking to help an old friend, found Beyond Borders online.

She said her friend needed what she estimated to be $28,000 to $30,000 worth of treatment for a long-standing bite problem. She contacted Beyond Borders, which set up her friend’s appointment in Palomas.

They went early to check out other dentists, and Wisdom said the one the company chose “was exactly what we were looking for.” Not only did the dentist make the correct diagnosis, but they were provided with a written treatment plan. “That was exactly what the dentist I worked for would have done,” Wisdom said.

The plan included gum surgery and 12 crowns at a cost of about $4,500. Her friend will be able to complete that treatment in months instead of years.

Wisdom was so pleased that she scheduled her own cleaning and checkup in Palomas.

Gerda Mateevici, 72, of Rio Rancho had spent $5,000 on dental care this year, and decided to try a dentist in Mexico when she needed a new crown. She booked the concierge service with Beyond Borders and traveled there last month.

When she returned to get the permanent crown, her husband accompanied her, and they went on their own. While there, she decided to have bonding done at the same time on some teeth to blend better with the color of others.

Mateevici said the crown cost $230 in Mexico, compared to about $1,000 here. And it fit well right away, she said, adding that the dentist was “very gentle” and “kind.” To her, the risk was worth it, and “so far, it’s a good job, so why not?” Her husband, she said, is considering going back again for a spare pair of dentures.

Besides good, affordable care, Mateevici said the little town was fun to visit, and “it was nice to be down there.”

Besides the drilling and pulling of the dentist’s office, the company’s Palomas Partners Program offers discounts on eyeglasses, hearing aids, prescription drugs, handmade boots and gifts, all available a short walk from the clinics. Recently, Grosswald said, his wife bought three pairs of glasses for $45. And an eye exam and lenses for him, which were $404 in Santa Fe, were $90 in Palomas.

He says costs are lower there because education for dentists in Mexico is either free or subsidized, so they don’t have school loans to pay off. And according to Grosswald, the average dentist there makes $30,000 to $50,000, compared to $150,000 to $200,000 in the United States.

The Palomas dentists guarantee their work and will modify or redo it if the patient is unhappy, Grosswald said. The company also will provide free transportation within three months of the completion of the work if a return trip is necessary.

The service is attracting some interest by U.S. dentists. Beyond Borders currently has an agreement with two dental clinics in Chicago, which evaluate patients and send the treatment plan to Beyond Borders, which then consults with Palomas dentists. “We get the quotes and make the arrangements, and then their patient flies to Albuquerque,” Grosswald said.

Still, dental tourism is not for everyone.

Elana Haviv said she had consulted two different dentists in Santa Fe about a gum problem, and they gave her different advice, although neither spent much time with her. In Mexico, she was impressed with the examination, but the treatment plan requires her to meet with the dentist every two weeks for 16 months, and she said she is unable to do that.

Still, she said, it was a good experience: “It’s always good to save money, but the main thing is to be in good hands, and I strongly feel we were in good hands. I’ve already sent two other friends down there.”

On the web

• Learn more at www.beyondbordersdental.com.

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