The high cost of prescription drugs is creating chaos, confusion and conflict. Congress, the FDA, a federal judge and several state governments are all working at cross-purposes.
Because brand name medications are frequently much cheaper in Canada, millions of Americans are traveling north or shopping online to save money. The city of Springfield, MA, encourages its employees to purchase prescriptions from Canada. The municipality hopes this will save about $4 million annually. States like Illinois and Minnesota are also actively pursuing the Canadian option.
Even Congress is getting into the act. House and Senate Medicare negotiators are trying to figure out a way for U.S. citizens to get access to cheaper Canadian drugs.
The FDA and the pharmaceutical industry are fighting such initiatives. They are doubtless delighted that a federal judge recently granted the government’s request to shut down 85 storefronts that assist consumers in buying drugs from Canada.
These small businesses don’t stock any drugs. You can’t buy toothpaste, Tylenol or Tums there. But you will find phones, fax machines and computers and people who know how to do cost comparison and assist in placing orders.
It’s hardly any wonder business is booming. The purple pill Nexium can cost more than $100 in the U.S. while the Canadian price is around $50. A three-months’ supply of the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor might easily exceed $200, whereas in Canada the cost would run a third less.
Drug companies don’t like the idea of so many Americans buying their prescriptions from Canada. Several have restricted the flow of popular drugs to Canadian suppliers suspected of reselling to U.S. citizens.
The FDA has joined the fray. According to the agency, importing drugs from Canada is illegal and potentially unsafe. The agency maintains that impure or counterfeit drugs could cross the border this way and harm U.S. citizens.
But some argue that Canadian laws are stricter than those governing U.S. pharmacy practices. Repackaging pills from large lots into smaller bottles is not permitted in Canada as it is in the U.S. Recent problems with counterfeit drugs have been traced in part to repackaging. Bogus drugs appear more common in the U.S. than in Canada.
Nevertheless, there are dangers for people who buy medications online. Not all Internet pharmacies are reputable. A Web site that claims to be Canadian might actually originate in Columbia, where drug regulation may not be as strict. What should online shoppers look for?
* Canadian law requires pharmacies to put their name, address, phone number and license number on the Web site. Look for this information.
* If the online pharmacy does not require a prescription, shop elsewhere. Legitimate Canadian drugstores require a prescription, which a Canadian physician must review.
* Call or email the provincial pharmacy regulatory agency if you wonder about the legitimacy of an online Canadian pharmacy.
Given that Congress, the states and the FDA are in conflict, it’s no wonder consumers are confused. Those who wish to buy their prescription drugs online can save money, but they must be extra careful.

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