Costa Rica Health Care

Written by Lisle Head 

When you see statistics from the World Health Organization placing the life expectancy of Costa Ricans near the top of the scale year after year, one starts to ponder what the secret may be. Could it be a particular ingredient common to the local cuisine, or an ancient coral compound found in the drinking water? Or is it something much simpler? The answer is lies in part in the local health care system and services. The hospitals, doctors, and services found in Costa Rica rank the highest in Latin America. Being a semi-socialized society with federal efforts clearly aimed at the well-being of its citizens for the long term, Costa Rica takes great pride in its two-tiered medical structure. To examine Costa Rica’s foray into an increasingly competitive global market for medical dollars, one must break the patient’s options into two categories: socialized health care and private health care.

The Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS), commonly referred to as simply “the CAJA” is a universal health care system available for any citizen or legal resident of Costa Rica. Though it is not without its financial burdens and struggles, the purpose of this sixty-plus year old system is to provide low-cost health care for anyone within the borders of this peaceful nation. A common misconception is that the CAJA is exclusively the domain of Costa Ricans. Not so. The CAJA provides health services to foreigners and visitors as well. Foreigners can make contributions to the CCSS and purchase government run insurance from Instituto de Seguro Nacional (INS) that is recognized in hundreds of private clinics, pharmacies, and labs throughout the private and public sector. In fact, it is now a requirement of residents to do so. It is a well-known fact in Costa Rica that CAJA-run hospitals such as Hospital Mexico in the capital city of San Jose provides some of the best emergency services available in the country. In addition, doctors are extremely well trained and the facilities are equipped to handle any emergency or surgery. As with any state-run bureaucracy, the CAJA is prone to slow service, and it can take some time to get a simple appointment with a family physician. Though perhaps due for an overhaul, the CAJA does serve the public well and if you have and accident or medical emergency in Costa Rica, the best choice is a CCSS hospital. Many emergency patients at private hospitals are rushed to the state-run facility as a doctor is always present rather than on call and the facility is often better-equipped to handle such cases.

That said, what makes Costa Rica a powerful player in this market is having a private health care sector to compliment public options. This not only eases the load placed on a much-strained CCSS by an increasing population, mismanagement typical of any government, and general underfunding, but creates options for locals and foreigners to receive top-notch medical services at incredibly reasonable rates. Though many wouldn’t like to associate low prices with medical care, you needn’t worry yourself about the quality and experience held by the medical experts in this field, nor their facilities. They are some of the best doctors in Latin America, often receiving their degree in part in the United States and usually have interned at American hospitals. Hospitals such as Clinica Biblica, Clinica Catolica, and CIMA are where many CCSS doctors actually moonlight or spend their afternoons picking up some extra cash and gaining a bit more international expertise. These U.S. affiliated hospitals do bring higher costs relative to the socialized options, but are top-notch facilities with the latest in modern equipment, highly trained bilingual staff, and next to zero wait time. One can see a doctor the same day, or a specialist usually within 24hrs for visits costing less than $75. These hospitals and modern clinics are capitalizing on their strengths by beginning to offer services such as optical, dental, and cosmetic surgery. This has been a catalyst in the fast-growing market in Costa Rica of “medical tourism” where foreigners combine their medical needs and vacation time into a one-stop, low-cost shop where you can enjoy your recovery time in style on a tranquil beach at a five-star resort.

Whether you’re thinking of moving to Costa Rica, coming for extended vacation, or simply don’t want to pay the exorbitant U.S. prices not covered by your current medical plan, Costa Rica is a great choice for your medical needs. Yes, there may be something in the water here that makes Costa Ricans live so long, but it likely has more to do with regular check-ups from qualified, experienced doctors with the latest in information and technology as well.

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