Importing Prescription Drugs

Published: February, 2004

The lure of cheaper prescription drugs is driving many Americans to Canada or other countries. By either a bus trip north or Internet and mail-order pharmacies, an estimated one million Americans are finding ways to reduce their medical costs. Prices for prescription drugs in Canada can be less than half as much as the cost in the U.S. , so it's not just penny-pinchers interested in this trend. Even a few states and cities are looking into purchasing drugs across the border for their employees to help relieve their budget woes. Springfield , Mass.w, already has such a program in place.

Canadian drugs prices are so much lower due to government price controls. But taking advantage of our thrifty neighbors to the north is actually illegal, according to a law against importing prescription drugs. For the most part, customs agents have let this transgression by individuals slip by them without notice. Some lawmakers and states, under pressure from their constituents, are pushing to have the law rewritten to allow Americans to buy cheaper drugs out of the country. For now, though, the current administration has no plans to allow this. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has even gone so far as to say they would consider legal action if cities and states defy the ban. With the help of a federal judge, the FDA recently shut down a pharmacy chain that imported Canadian prescription drugs.

American drug companies are concerned about this trend as well. Their U.S. prices are set high, in part, to defray their revenue loss because of Canadian price controls. To protect their income at home, some drug makers are beginning to curb the ability of Canadian pharmacies to buy their drugs. They are also imposing restrictions on the sale of their drugs out of the country. These strategies have actually begun to affect the price of drugs in Canada .

The FDA is concerned about drug imports because they have no way of overseeing the safety of the drugs. This is a valid fear that consumers should pay attention to as well.

When you purchase a drug at a storefront in Canada or through a foreign Internet or mail-order company, you don't know if what is in the bottle is actually what the label says it is. You have no way of knowing about the qualifications of the pharmacist serving you or the source of their drugs. You may be taking the wrong amount, the wrong drug, or a pill with no active ingredient at all. In the U.S. , pharmacies and their pharmacists undergo a high level of scrutiny to ensure your safety. By importing drugs through various suppliers, you also don't have one pharmacist looking out for you and taking note of your various prescriptions and the possible interactions between them.

You can save money on your prescription drugs in other, less risky, ways. Try these ideas:

  • Switch to generic medications when possible; these are oftentimes less expensive than buying name-brand drugs in Canada .
  • Switch to a medication provided at lower cost by your insurance provider.
  • Use a mail-order pharmacy offered by your insurance provider. Often you can get supplies for 90 days at the cost of one month.
  • Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about cutting higher-dose pills in half to get the dose size you need. This way your medication lasts twice as long.
  • Your doctor may know about special offers from pharmaceutical companies that provide certain medications at reduced or no cost. Ask about these.
  • Take a look at your prescription list with your doctor and make sure all the medications are still necessary.

Lawmakers are well aware of the need to help citizens lower their health care costs. Hopefully, there will be some changes in the not-too-distant future. Until then, be wary of purchasing any medication that has not had government oversight into its source and safety.

February 2004 Update

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