VENICE, Fla. — In the quiet beachside city of Venice on Florida’s west coast, a new ‘freedom-based’ healthcare clinic is already making waves.
“I don't understand why people are so judgmental towards us,” said clinic co-owner Tanya Parus.
At the office, medical freedom is not just words on mobile billboard parked outside, it’s a guiding principle inside explained Parus, who opened the ‘We the People Health and Wellness Center’ back in September.
When Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone asked what medical freedom means, Parus responded, “The freedom to make your own healthcare decisions without being pushed or forced to do anything that you don't want to do.”
Parus, a mom of two and former EMT, said she was inspired to open the primary care clinic after what she witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People were not going to see their doctor because they were scared,” she said. “They didn't want to get vaccinated and felt pressured to do things that they didn't want to do.”
Parus, local chapter president of the conservative group Moms for America, is also part of a right-wing movement in Sarasota County that took off during the pandemic amid lockdowns and mask mandates. At one point, she helped hundreds of parents get signed waivers exempting their kids from having to wear masks to school.
“We had over 3000 people in line. It was insane,” she recalled about the anti-mask event.
Today, some of the same doctors and nurses who signed those mask exemption forms work at her clinic, and she said many of the families they helped are among their estimated 400 patients.
Patient motivated or politically driven?
Throughout the clinic, images of the American flag hang alongside pictures depicting freedom, liberty, and the constitution that inspired its name. In the clinic’s main hallway, a banner replicating the Constitution highlights the name of the clinic.
“There’s no political motivation,” Parus insists about the banner. This is not political, okay. To us, this means freedom,” she said.
It’s a crusade, she knows, draws public criticism and, she admits, distrust in mainstream media.
During our recent visit, a photographer suddenly started filming us and wouldn’t stop even after one of the doctors asked everyone to stop rolling.
Clinics touts ivermectin & hydroxychloroquine but says not to all vaccines.
At a time when freedom has become a popular catchphrase for conservative politics in Florida, Parus believes her clinic offers patients an alternative to government-controlled healthcare and what she calls government overreach.
The clinic doesn’t accept insurance. Instead, patients pay a monthly subscription rate that ranges from $50 for kids to $165 for adults over 65.
Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, malaria drugs touted by the right but not approved by the FDA to treat COVID-19, are welcomed and prescribed at the clinic, while medically proven vaccinations of any kind aren’t even an option.
“So, no flu shots,” asked Investigative Reporter LaGrone?
“No, ma'am,” said Parus.
“What about child vaccines,” asked LaGrone.
“We don't do any vaccines,” explained Parus who said patients are given informed consent about the clinic’s policies and practices. [Parus also said they will refer patients to the local health department for vaccines if the patient asks.]
“We’re being silenced and threatened,” said a clinic doctor who was terminated over controversial views.
“I spent my entire career as a promoter of traditional childhood vaccines,” said Dr. Renata Moon, the clinic’s pediatrician. Moon’s controversial views on the COVID-19 vaccine left her questioned, investigated, and even discredited by a previous employer.
“We're being silenced and threatened,” she told us.
Before working at the clinic, Moon was a licensed doctor in Washington State and a professor at Washington State University.
But after publicly questioning the COVID vaccine during a roundtable in DC last year that was hosted by COVID-19 critic U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, Washington State University didn’t renew her contract. In a letter from the college’s interim dean, Moon was called out for contributing to the “possible spread of misinformation.”
Today, Moon remains under investigation by the Washington Medical Commission.
“I would say the world changed. I don't think I changed,” she said about her views which are now critical of all vaccines.
Another clinic doctor has a problem past.
“These drug companies, they don't create cures. They create customers,” said Dr. Michelle Scott, who treats adults at the clinic. Scott said she was recruited after getting fired from an urgent care center for refusing to wear a mask during the pandemic.
“I was ready to leave anyways. I didn’t like the job,” she said about her termination.
Scott is a proud anti-vaxxer whose personal website is riddled with government criticism and unproven or unapproved treatments for COVID-19.
Patient perspective: “I’m not saying that all doctors are bad.”
Patients we spoke with buy into the clinic’s more natural approach, less government approach.
“I won’t ever take a vaccine again,” said the clinic’s oldest patient, Richard, who is 86 years old. “You can’t tell me God wants me to change what he created."
“I’m not saying that all the doctors out there are bad, but I think the insurance companies greatly influence what they have to do,” said Steve Martin Smith,” who joined the clinic with his wife after not going to a doctor for 20 years.
Is the clinic doing anything wrong?
But Dr. Steven Rosenberg, a Florida dermatologist who leads a state panel that determines if a doctor should be disciplined, has concerns.
When asked if the clinic is doing anything wrong, Rosenberg responded, “I guess it depends on how you define wrong,” he said. “By law, what they're doing is legal. Whether it is consistent with the standard of care is another question.”
“There's always somebody who's going to try to take advantage of those individuals who may not be sophisticated enough to really appreciate what is the appropriate treatments,” Rosenberg added.
“You believe that this is a group that's taking advantage of people as opposed to offering them something different,” asked reporter LaGrone.
“Well, they found a little niche for themselves of people who believe in this, and they're taking advantage financially,” said Rosenberg.
When asked what Parus would tell people who see her and her clinic as a group of conservative political activists offering quackery to patients, Parus responded, “I don't know about quackery. Just because you have a difference of opinion doesn't mean that you're not right in your own way. We have our own thing. Come take a visit, take a tour."