'We don't want any barrier': Health clinics offer meds regardless of immigration status

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EVERETT, Wash. -- The Department of Health is warning that selling prescription drugs without a license is not only dangerous, it's against the law. It happened at an Everett market, but the store owner insists it was an honest mistake meant to help her customers - many who feel they have nowhere else to turn.

Alejandra Perez, co-owner of La Mixteca del Norte market on Everett's Casino Road, says a can of pop, a bag of chips and penicillin used to be a typical sale at her store.

Her tiny market is packed with items from Mexico, everything from religious candles in glass jars to Mexican candies and soda -- typical convenient store items -- and a busy international wire transfer service.

She said at one point, she had a small assortment of products for common aliments including prescription medications "for infections and skin or the allergies," said Perez.

But her store is not a pharmacy, it a neighborhood market.

The state Department of Health said La Mixteca is not licensed to sell prescriptions medications.

"We dispatched and investigated and sure enough based on our investigation we found some unlawful prescriptions that were being sold," said David Johnson with the Washington State Department of Health.

Perez said she was surprised to learn the medications were unlawful to sell in her store and had no idea until the Department of Health confronted her last December.

By July of this year, she was issued an order to cease and desist from the DOH for not having a license to practice as a pharmacy.

"There were some drugs or prescriptions that required they be licensed or sold by a licensed pharmacist, and some of those are illegal or unlawful for sale here in the U.S.," says Johnson. "That's how this whole thing started."

"I understand, like what I did was wrong," said Perez.

Johnson said it's unlawful, and dangerous. He insists the wrong dose in the wrong hands can be disastrous.

"If you are going to purchase from an unlicensed pharmacist, in this case, you are taking a risk," insisted Johnson.

He said the state learned about La Mixteca after a pharmacist stopped in for a snack, saw the meds and reported it.

"There were a number of drugs that we found such as penicillin and tetracycline," said Johnson.

DOH inspectors visited the shop last December. Once inside, state inspectors found five prescription drugs for sale, some manufactured in Mexico, plus some displayed products that contain metamizole, a drug not approved for human use in the U.S according to the DOH Order to Cease and Desist.

A short time after being hit with the that Order, La Mixteca agreed to not operate as a pharmacy without a license, paid a $1,000 fine.

An Everett police spokesman said Everett PD assisted the DOH in December and impounded the meds.

"I did a mistake, when the Health Department comes they say, 'hey you have to have a license for this and this and this,' " said Perez.

She said she bought the medications last year from one of her Mexican merchandise suppliers, who she said has since gone underground.

Since her store offers some over-the-counter products, she assumed the meds identified by the state as unlawful were OK to sell too. They were popular -- especially with her undocumented customers.

"All the people work in restaurants and construction and sometimes don't have papers," explained Perez.

She said customers without papers, and those without insurance found her prices affordable and her shop safe.

"Some people say 'cause when you go to the doctor, he has all my information and stuff and if something happens, they come for me," Perez said.

Perez's market is in a strip mall. Her neighbors at Everett Accident and Injury Clinic said they've heard the similar concerns.

The clinic's chiropractor said he's seen a definite uptick in deportation worries from some of his patients, many whom are Hispanic.

"There has been a shift in people's level of fear," said Dr. Trevor Nabholz in between treating patients. "They don't want to go to doctor because they're not sure if they're able to, because they don't want to fill out paperwork."

Nabholz, who is fluent in Spanish, said his patients feel comfortable doing business at the strip mall where staff at all the businesses speak Spanish and cater to the Hispanic community.

But what some of his undocumented patients and Perez's customers may not know is that they can get care and meds without revealing their immigration status.

"Our door is open to everybody we never ask those kinds of questions, 'Are you documented', that's not what we do," said Community Health Center of Snohomish County CEO Bob Farrell.

We found five CHC clinics, four of them near La Mixteca market, open to anyone in need.

Their clinic in Edmonds has an on-site pharmacy.

Next week, CHC will open another clinic on the Everett Community College campus.

Farrell says it's standard policy to never ask about immigration status and to not share patient-information.

"We are not here to turn anybody in, that's not our job," Farrell said. "Our job is to get them healthy."

Public Health Seattle & King County's Director was not surprised to hear that some customers were relying on the Everett market for medication.

"This is a good example of where a cultural issue is sort of hitting against a health and safety issue, which is you have to have a licensed pharmacy here," said Patty Hayes, the director at Public Health Seattle & King County.

Patients skipping care due to deportation fears is such a concern at Public Health, the agency has increased outreach efforts to find and reassure people. They've stepped up various community programs and partnered with local businesses to reach even more people, leaned on language specialists to help explain legalities, and offer free or reduced transportation.

A bulletin on its website reads, "Immigrant clients are encouraged to access services without fear."

"There is a lot of fear right now we at Public Health Seattle & King County, we are trying to step up and address that, it is of grave concern to us if people are afraid to come and get the services or care they need," said Hayes.

Public Health Seattle & King County has the same no-ask policy at their 12 medical clinics, and other specialty health centers.

"We don't want any barrier, any barrier," insisted Hayes.

She worries that those who need care, won't get it, and that could trigger a spike in local health issues.

"We want to make sure people know they can get access to care, their information is protected and we will help them get to a pharmacy that works," said Hayes.

Perez is trying to get the word out too, she said, now that we've moved into cold and flu season she occasionally still has customers asking for meds.

"It's all about safety and it's all about ensuring that you are buying what you think you are buying," said Johnson. It's safer and it's the law.

To check whether a pharmacy has a license and is in good standing with the state, the Department of Health offers a provider credential search on its website. Be sure to search under "healthcare provider".

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