May 2, 2010
The high cost of prescription drugs has left many Americans scrambling for ways to afford their medications. But for Anita Prager of Apopka, Florida, cheaper meds are just a mouse click away.
Prager is among the estimated 1 million Americans each year who buy their medications online from Canada. This consumer segment is growing as more people look for ways to cut down on health-care costs.
Even though buying medication online from other countries is illegal, a group representing Canadian online pharmacies is seeking to get the word out about safely buying their drugs over the Internet.
"Prescription-drug costs in the U.S. are among the highest in the world, which is why so many Americans seek alternative sources for their medications," said Tim Smith, general manager of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association. "Certainly, at this time it is important for people to know that buying drugs online from a source you can trust is an available alternative, especially for people on fixed incomes."
Prager, who suffers from COPD and recently underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, and her husband, who has high blood pressure and diabetes, began researching their options online a couple of years ago. Among the drugs Prager has saved money on is Aromasin, used to treat advanced breast cancer. A three-month supply retails for $900. Prager pays $600 for the same amount through a Canadian online pharmacy.
"We absolutely could not afford our medications, even with Medicare, because of the doughnut hole I typically reach by the middle of the year," said the 78-year-old retired insurance broker.
The gap for Medicare Part D coverage — also known as the Medicare doughnut hole — is reached after a beneficiary surpasses the prescription-drug-coverage benefit. Initially, the drug plan pays 75 percent after the first $310 deductible until total drug costs reach $2,830. Then beneficiaries enter the doughnut hole until their out-of-pocket costs reach $4,550. Afterward, Medicare pays most of the costs of covered drugs for the remainder of the year.
Smith's organization represents licensed retail pharmacies that sell drugs to both Canadian and U.S. citizens. Member pharmacies sell medications made by leading name-brand manufacturers at prices that are often considerably lower than their U.S. counterparts. The association also verifies that members meet necessary standards and requirements for safety.
"[Canadian International Pharmacy Association] has provided a very good service since we began operating in 2002," Smith said. "What we haven't done a very good job at is talking to the people in the U.S. and making sure they're aware of the service we're still providing."
Though the Canadian group is working to create greater awareness of ordering drugs online from our northern neighbor, officials from the Food and Drug Administration are warning consumers against it — and reminding Americans that it is against the law.
"Purchasing drugs online from other countries is illegal," said Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman Sandy Walsh. However, she added, the FDA rarely enforces the law against those who are buying the drugs for personal use. "The FDA recommends flat out only buying prescription drugs from legal U.S. sources because oftentimes a lot of the drugs are not what they say they are.
"There are also bogus Canadian sites that aren't from Canada but originate in other countries," she said. "We've done some studies that show some of these drugs are expired, counterfeit drugs, or do not contain any or enough of the active ingredient it claims to have."
Walsh said FDA-approved medications must meet strict guidelines, including packaging information that provides drug ingredients, potential side effects and possible drug interactions.
Smith, of the Canadian pharmacy association, would not comment on FDA policy but said his group works to ensure the safety and reliability of drugs sold online by Canadian companies.
"American patients seeking affordable medications — particularly seniors on fixed budgets — have purchased prescriptions from Canada for many years," he said.
Prager, who continues to order her medications online, said she wasn't so concerned about the legality issue. "People are financially forced to do what they have to do," she said.