Daily Archives: September 29, 2010

What If You Get Sick Down There?

I’d known for nearly 20 years that I would spend my retirement years south of the Rio Grande. Where, exactly, I wasn’t sure. After having spent three months on the Rio Dulce on my wonderful Nancy Dawson I thought it would be in Guatemala. I seriously thought about Mexico, too. As followers of this blog know my final destination has been Panama.

Invariably when telling people of my plans they would ask: “What if you get sick down there?” My response was, half flippantly, “you either get better or you die.”

The reason I say “half flippantly” is because isn’t that really what life is like? When you get sick you either get better or you die. We, in the United States especially, have been brainwashed to believe that medical care in the States is unequaled anywhere in the world. ‘Taint so. Most expensive is NOT a synonym for BEST. And consider this: it has only been in MY lifetime that the world has had anti-biotic drugs that were life savers. Sadly there are now more and more nasty things that are becoming completely resistant to these drugs.

These days coronary bypasses are so common it’s likely that everyone knows someone who has had the procedure if not having had it done themselves. It wasn’t always so, of course. One of my classmate’s sisters, who graduated a couple of years ahead of us, was part of the team that invented the heart-lung machine without which open-heart surgery would be impossible. (BTW-my public high school class consisted of all of 60 students and the girl who pioneered the heart-lung machine and traveled all over the world teaching others how to use it graduated in a class with considerably fewer students.)

I have to admit that I was extremely lucky when I had my heart attack a couple of years ago to be living, literally, within eye sight of one of the best cardiac care facilities in southeast Florida. When I realized what was happening to me I had my roommate drive me the six blocks to the hospital. No sense waiting around for an ambulance. When my two and a half day stay was over I was presented with a bill for nearly $70,000.00!

But what if you don’t live six blocks away from a good hospital? What if you live out in the middle of the farm belt? Even back where I grew up on Cape Cod you’re still a half hour’s drive from the nearest hospital. There’s a good chance you’re not going to make it. So even in the country with the “best” health care in the world, as some would like you to believe, in a lot of cases you either get better or you die.

I certainly don’t profess to be an expert but my impression is that Panamanians have access to some of the best health care south of the Rio Grande. Certainly, I’d bet, head and shoulders over Guatemala, El Salvador or Nicaragua. There are hospitals in Panama City that would stack up favorably with any found in major metropolitan areas in the States. There are 12 hospitals in Panama City, many staffed by doctors that have studied in the United States. Hospital Punta Pacifica, in fact, is managed by world-famous Johns Hopkins of Baltimore, Maryland. Medical tourism here in Panama is a growing segment of the economy.

Outside of the capital things get a little sketchier. I noticed that there were a couple of modern-looking hospitals in Chitré when I was initially roaming the country looking for a place to settle. I know if one chose to settle down in the Bocas del Toro area and had serious health concerns they might be living on the edge. But I’d say it’s not too much different than someone choosing to live in most rural parts of the United States, either.

Here, near David, the country’s third largest city there are several hospitals, two of which, Mae Lewis and Hospital Chiriqui (this is Chiriqui Province) are privately run. Hospital Chiriqui, shown below,

has a program called Medical Services Chiriqui which is sort of an in-house HMO. Here is what it covers:


This week I signed up for it. On Monday I had to get blood work done. I HATE being stuck with needles. Absolutely DETEST it. However, the girl at the lab was a true artist with the needle and I can honestly say I didn’t even feel the needle going in. All my test results show me to be in pretty good shape. Yesterday with the test results in hand I met with Dr. Julio Osorio who will be my primary physician. Nice guy. Speaks good English and gave me a thorough exam. The only thing wrong is my cholesterol is just a hair over the limit, but I’m not upset by that. After all, we’re all going to die of something eventually and if eating twigs and bark is what it takes to extend one’s life, what’s the point?

The lab tests were a FRACTION of what they would have cost in the States. Of course I had to pay full price out-of-pocket for them but with my “Jubilado” discount I got ten bucks whacked off the top, never the less. If I do it again next year and being in the program the tests will cost me less than $20.00. In general what you spend on health care here is unheard of back home. Here’s a sign I saw on a clinic when I was wandering around Chitré:

That’s right! Feeling achy and out of sorts? It’ll set you back three bucks to talk to a doctor in Chitré,

As always, there’s a bit of a hitch in all medical programs and the Chiriqui program won’t cover pre-existing conditions for the first two years. That means my heart condition is up for grabs, but while Medicare doesn’t cover anything once you leave the U.S. I’ll continue to pay for Part B which covers doctors. Should things get really bad and  to the point where I can’t pay for it here I can go back to the States and be a leech on the country’s taxpayers.

The cost of the program, at my age and next year when I’m 70, is $62.00/month. There’s an 8% discount if you pay the whole year at one whack and 6% off if you pay six months at a time.

All things considered, I think the health care system here in Chiriqui Province is a pretty good deal but I do hope I don’t have to use it.


Filed under Living Abroad, Retirement Abroad, Uncategorized