MARFA, Texas — In borderland Texas, a widespread lack of health insurance is linked to poverty and high rates of diseases such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure.
Cheaper prescription drugs to treat these conditions are available across the border in Mexico. But physicians and law enforcement are tracking a relatively new trend — the smuggling of medicine in bulk from Mexico to U.S. patients who no longer feel safe shopping for them in Mexico.
Mexican Pharmacist Jorge Sandoval says people who buy his medicines these days often buy for people they don’t even know.
“There’s a trade in legal prescription medication,” he said in Spanish from his shop in Chihuahua, Mexico, about an hour south of the border. “The trade is generated by people (in both countries) who want to buy medicine at a lower price. People are bringing in ice chests to fill with medicines that they sell to friends and relatives.”
About 24 percent of Texans have no medical insurance, the highest percentage of uninsured in the nation. And although Texas has some of the highest enrollments in the new health care marketplaces created under the Affordable Care Act, the numbers represent a small fraction of the overall uninsured.
That’s one reason why, for years, people have crossed the border for cheaper medicine. The diabetes medicine Metformin is $35 a month here and $15 in Mexico. The blood thinner Coumadin is $60 a month here, $15 there.
But what’s new here is a cottage industry of smugglers buying medicines in bulk to bring back to the U.S.
At emergency rooms on the border, physicians like Juan Nieto of Presidio, Texas, say patients are at risk. He says they’re increasingly showing up with medications that don’t look right.
“These are medications that we sometimes can’t identify. They appear to be black market, homemade,” he said.
Nieto said patients are unapologetic.
“Medications have made the scene in flea markets,” Nieto said. “It’s a good avenue for people, to (be) inconspicuous in obtaining their medicines without seeming like they’re dealing with a drug dealer.”
Branwyn Maxwell-Watts, a small business owner in West Texas, is far from a dealer. She’s a married mother of four and engaged in her tight-knit rural community. But she crosses the border to buy medicine for friends and herself.
“Mainly diabetes, a ton of high blood pressure medicine. For me it’s migraine medicine, ” she said. “It’s something that I was providing that they needed. I didn’t think about the consequences. I still don’t, because I still do it.”
A recent report by the British medical journal The Lancet says Maxwell’s case is not unusual.
“There’s a lot of people, and even people that I know, who’ve gone down there in the past, that won’t go down there now,” Maxwell said. “Not even for their medicine. So they’re always asking, ‘do you know anyone who is going that can pick this up for me?’”
Medical professionals are asked the same question.
Don Culbertson, who has a physician’s assistant with a license to prescribe prescription medicine, traveled to Mexico to help a patient with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, congestive heart failure and diabetes, who couldn’t afford to buy the medicine in the U.S. Culbertson knew it was illegal to cross the border with someone else’s medicine. But he did it anyway.
“The Customs officer asked me if I had anything to declare,” he told Fronteras Desk.
“And I declared, ‘Medications.’ And he asked me if they were for me or for someone else. And I told him they were for someone else,” Culbertson said. “The Customs officer was a compassionate, reasonable person. And I know they have a job to do and laws to uphold. But they let me through that one time.”
Back in Mexico, Sandoval the pharmacist wonders if cartels that control smuggling routes are involved. So does U.S. law enforcement.
“It’s being done in kilograms, he said, “the same way it’s done with illegal drugs.”
In one raid alone last summer, police in Hidalgo, Texas, seized 25,000 bottles of prescription medicine like antibiotics and steroids at a flea market across from Reynosa, Tamaulipas. Nine people were charged with running a ring that earned $5,000 a day.
The Department of Homeland Security says it’s now tracking the trade.
Fronteras is a multimedia collaboration among seven public radio stations that produce stories from across the southwest and along the U.S.-Mexico border. It is led by KJZZ in Phoenix and KPBS in San Diego, Calif., and funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as part of its Local Journalism Center initiative.