INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — An Indianapolis woman is sharing her story about bariatric surgery in Mexico.
Amanda Keeler remembers looking at photos in January 2018. She saw one, specifically, that stuck in her mind.
"I was just mortified,” she said. “It was that photo where I immediately picture a future of me needing direct care. I just pictured the worst.”
That’s when Keeler decided she was going to get bariatric surgery.
“I knew I needed an extra tool in my tool belt,” she explained.
Keeler visited a couple hospitals around central Indiana but quickly learned that her insurance would not cover the expenses. Instead, she would be forced to pay $30,000 up front.
“They wouldn’t cover weight loss anything,” she said. “It was frustrating! They were willing to continue paying for my hypertension medication, my acid reflux medication. It was like they were willing to pay for the side effects of obesity but nothing to prevent it.”
By March 2017, Keeler started exploring medical tourism. A couple of her Facebook friends had mentioned the trend, people going to Mexico for a more inexpensive surgery.
“I kind of envisioned the worst. I pictured someone in the back of their van that also does tattoos,” she laughed. “It blew my mind how much less expensive it would be to go there but that I would still get the same quality of care for a fourth of the cost.”
Keeler talked with a nutritionist in Tijuana and immediately went on a weight loss plan. At her highest, Keeler weighed 331 pounds. Doctors wanted her to lose 40 pounds before the surgery.
With a special diet full of whole and clean foods, she did it within two months.
“I felt like I was going to the 'Wizard of Oz' for a new stomach,” she said.
Optimistic but nervous, Keeler and her husband first flew to California. They caravanned across the border with six other patients.
The day of the surgery, Keeler took several photos of the hospital’s accreditations. She recovered quickly. She spent one night in the hospital, the following weekend at a nearby hotel, did at least one beach excursion and was back at work within days of her surgery. Round trip, Keeler said her surgery cost a couple thousand dollars.
Months later, Keeler is running 5Ks. She is proud of her weight loss journey.
“I just want people to know there are other options out there,” she said.
Local doctors say Keeler was lucky. They’re warning others about the dangers of medical tourism.
“The problem with going to another country is you that you can’t stay there forever. You have to come back and if you have a complication, it’s not a covered benefit in their insurance. So if they come back to the United States, and they have a complication, it’s not covered,” Doctor Margaret Inman explained.
Inman works at St. Vincent Hospital in Carmel. She sees thousands of patients a year and specializes in bariatric procedures.
“When you go down there, you gamble that you’re not going to have a complication. If you do, you’re going to have bills causing you to go into bankruptcy,” she said.
Inman said she understands the desire to get the surgery and why people opt to go across the border for a cheaper option. About 50 percent of the people she sees for a consultation do not follow through for one reason or another. Often, it’s because they can’t afford the cost.
“I feel sorry for those people and I wish they could obtain care in the United States,” she said. “I kind of fault the health care system in the us for not making it more accessible.”
Inman admitted she has seen catastrophic results.
“I wish I could say I haven’t seen that happen but I have,” she said.
Medical Tourism Association Director Jonathan Edelheit agreed. Even though there are great, legitimate facilities overseas offering to do elective surgeries, he said there are a few that spend a lot of money marketing to Americans knowing they’ll bite at the deal.
“Americans can save anywhere from about 40% to up to 90% on some type of surgery or even a medication if they leave the U.S. for that,” he explained.
While most insurance companies offer policies that cover elective surgeries like bariatric, employers usually opt out because of the expense. Inman said it can double their policy prices.
Edlheit estimates that about one million Americans rely on medical tourism every year. Some look for cheaper dental options, others opt into elective procedures like bariatric and plastic surgery. People like the packaged deal overseas, too, compared to American pricing that comes in several different bills.
“Unfortunately, Mexico – I’d say – is where we have more patient complaints than other countries. I think it’s because of the lack of regulation or oversight by the Mexican government.”
Just recently, a Texas woman went on life support after she traveled to Mexico for plastic surgery. The Dallas real estate agent reportedly suffered brain damage.
“I think you need to be careful,” Edelheit warned. “It’s worth it, but only worth it for certain procedures.”
Edelheit said people need to do their due diligence. He recommends researching the facility, the doctor, and talking to past patients about their experiences. He said it also helps to get a medical tourism facilitator.