Tucsonans head by the van load twice a week to dentists across the border

Tucsonans head by the van load twice a week to dentists across the border
  1. Tucsonans head by the van load twice a week to dentists across the border
    “The first time people come down most go, ‘Whoa, that was easy. I can do tha…
    Arizona (AZ)

Just beyond the pedestrian entrance on the Nogales border lies a courtyard lined with pharmacies and dentists’ offices. Inside the waiting rooms sit Americans seeking cheap dental work.

Former Tucson dentist Mark McMahon decided to capitalize on this phenomenon and now takes van loads of people across the border twice a week.

“The first time people come down most go, ‘Whoa, that was easy. I can do that,’” he said.

Every Tuesday and Thursday patients meet McMahon at the Denny’s near St. Mary’s Road and Interstate 10 in Tucson. They pile into his yellow 12-passenger van to make the hour drive down to Nogales. Magnets on the side of the van show a smiling coyote advertising “70% off.”

On a good day, six to eight people will meet McMahon for the drive.

Some are repeat customers who choose to ride with McMahon, even after seeing how easily they can make the trip themselves.

“We also encourage people to drive on their own,” McMahon said. “We even have a little video that we send out to people to teach them how."

Janice Crannell booked a third trip with McMahon after a consultation and gum surgery in the weeks before.

“It’s great,” she said. “You never know how you’re going to feel after a major enough surgery, and then you don’t have to deal with the driving. Dr. Mark is really very pleasant.”

Others make the trek from Phoenix to meet with McMahon.

Larry Romero, a dispatcher at the sheriff’s department, brought his daughter, Amber, to Nogales to have her wisdom teeth removed. Romero’s wife is from Nogales, so his only concern was the procedure itself.

McMahon calls his service “Coyote Dental”— a reference to the smugglers who help migrants cross the border. He charges $50 for the drive and receives a commission from the dentists.

He first thought of the idea after selling his practice in 1999 and traveling for four years, journeying to the southern tip of South America.

Upon his return, McMahon searched for job opportunities in Nogales, Sonora. He scoped out prospects at four dentists’ offices undercover as a patient and was impressed with the quality of service offered by the Mexican dentists. 

“I realized, because the prices were so low, I wasn’t going to make a lot of money as a dentist,” he said. “But I saw this huge opportunity for the fact that just across the border is this incredible wealth of dental providers and technology.”

After parking the van at a Burger King on the U.S. side, McMahon and the group cross the border with ease. A Mexican guard waves them through without checking IDs. On the other side, a representative from one of the offices takes Romero, his daughter and Crannel to The Tooth, Inc.

Over the past two years, McMahon has worked with several of the dentists just across the border, figuring out which work best for his patients.

Dr. Abraham Chavez Portillo and his wife, Zuleika Valdez, opened The Tooth in November. The office is housed in a nearly-empty retail center atop a flight of marble stairs. The waiting room is small, but has cushioned seating, a fridge with bottled water and a Keurig coffee machine.

“As far as the offices go, I was actually quite impressed,” Crannell said. “They are quite clean and state of the art and so much less expensive.”

The Romeros wait patiently, reading magazines and looking at their phones while a television shows scenes of Ashton Kutcher playing Steve Jobs.

Meanwhile, Crannel sits in the dentist's chair, her mouth wide open as Chavez and Dr. Ricardo Milan, a gum specialist, make small talk and prod around in her mouth.

A painful experience with an Illinois dentist left Crannell skeptical of the trip to Mexico, but her concerns vanished in the chair.

“They were much more accommodating,” she said. “The doctors over there are very pleasant.”

Valdez explains that Chavez grew up in the United States and went to Pima Medical Institute where he studied as a dental assistant. He decided to go to Ciudad Juarez for dental school because it was cheaper and faster than studying north of the border.

Chavez and Valdez live in Rio Rico and drive 15 minutes to Nogales for work. 

Some of their most popular procedures are root canals and extractions. 

“It is a very good deal considering the price,” Valdez said, “and the dental quality is as good as if you did it in the United States."

However, American dentists contend the care received in Mexico is not always as safe as it is in the United States. 

“It’s important for people to understand that, here in the U.S., we have a very robust system of safeguards for health care in general, and that includes dentistry,” said Dr. Edmond Hewlett, professor at the UCLA School of Dentistry and a consumer advisor for the American Dental Association.

A factsheet released to members of the Arizona D…

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