The problem—I had some major dental issues that needed to be addressed. Including replacing a 6-tooth bridge, two crowns, a root canal and three fillings, I was looking at a bill of around $12,000 from my dentist, of which my mostly useless dental insurance would pay a small fraction.
The solution—I have a friend in Costa Rica who has a dental lab and connections with several fine dentists, where I can get the work done for much less.
I remember when I was in college in the ‘70s a professor saying that rising health care costs in the U.S. would cause extreme problems in the future. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but the future is here. In other parts of the world medical care isn’t a huge issue. When I was in New Zealand (my all-time favorite country) writing Kill Phil with Lee Nelson, I asked him if he had health insurance. He replied that other than a catastrophic policy, he didn’t need it. The cost of routine medical care was so reasonable that most people didn’t carry comprehensive insurance. Break a leg in NZ and it’ll cost you a few thousand. In the States you’d need to take out a mortgage. How can this be? The simple answer is sue-happy lawyers and their sue-happy clients (who were convinced to be sue-happy by their concerned attorneys), the AMA and political corruption (ok, lobbying).
I booked a flight to Costa Rica. Frequent flyer miles can be a godsend sometimes. I was able to book a one-way flight (since I didn’t know how long the dental stuff would take) on Continental for the minimum miles. I had a stopover in Houston, where I love to have some time between flights so I can go to Papadeaux’s for some southern food. It’s in Terminal E, check it out! Then it was on to San Jose, Costa Rica where I was met by my friend Mike, and old buddy Joe, who was an awesome host at his beautiful house for what turned out to be a two-week stay.
Costa Rica is a very interesting country. I’ve been there several times on big golf and gambling trips, but except for a few tours we didn’t get far away from the craziness of downtown San Jose. Joe lives up on the hill away from downtown, where it’s saner and safer. Somewhat. Costa Rica is indeed a third-world country. Driving reminds me of a video game; you never know what’s going to pop out at you. Traffic laws are merely suggestions, although they just installed a few traffic cameras and wrote thousands of tickets in a few hours! There’s an obvious lack of urban planning; beautiful estates are mixed in with shacks, and there are little local bars tucked in all over.
Costa Rica’s the noisiest country I’ve ever been in. Early morning weed-whacking is a national obsession. (They seem to have an aversion to lawnmowers.) The sound of dogs barking is constant throughout the night. In fact, there are dogs everywhere. Street dogs are as numerous as pedestrians, (and a lot more traffic conscious). It seems everyone wants to have a dog, but they don’t pay any attention to them, which is very sad, especially because they soon grow tired of feeding them and dump them on the streets.
Don’t get me wrong; Costa Rica’s generally a beautiful country, especially the further you get from San Jose. Some of the beaches are awesome and the fishing is world-class. The local people are very friendly and generally like foreigners. The weather is very temperate, although they have a rainy season, which happened to be the time I was there.
In Joe’s area there’s an interesting group of expats, mostly retired Americans who grew tired of the US and sought a little slice of paradise. They range from a retired two-star general and DOJ prosecutor to ex-drug runners, some men of mysterious pasts, and a very interesting and fun group of Texans. They’re a pretty tight-knit group who have one thing on common; they’re strangers in a strange land. They start gathering at the bars around 2:00 in the afternoon, drink and shoot the shit, and go from there. While this was fun for a while, I don’t think I could make a steady diet of it. But, to a man, or woman, every expat I met there said they love it and would never return to the US to live.
The dental work turned out great and I got it all done for less than $3000. Many others I talked to had similar experiences. I wasn’t familiar with the term “medical tourism”, but it’s a growing industry. As with many products and services in the US, we’ve overpriced things and people are seeking other options. My friend Fred Sorrell is a North Carolinian who owns the dental lab. My dentist, Dr. Carlos “Charlie” Larios Mejia, is a native Costa Rican who was educated in the States. They will arrange for transportation, lodging, and any touristy things you might want to do while getting your work done. If you want contact info, email me at email@example.com.
I’m writing this on a plane coming from Costa Rica, where it rained every day I was there, to Houston, where it hasn’t rained in about a year. (Doesn’t seem right—who’s in charge here?) I have mixed feelings about coming back to the States. I have spent my whole life here and love my country, but have serious concerns about the people who are leading us into the future and the direction the country is headed. I hope not too much of American culture spreads throughout the world, such as fast food (too late!) and sue-happy lawyers. That way there will always be different options. I don’t think I could be a full-time expat, but there are lots of foreign places where I’d love to spend significant time, and Costa Rica’s high on that list.