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Paying Way Too Much for Foreign Made Meds

Where was your medicine made? China, India, Mexico or Slovakia? Foreign made meds fill pharmacy shelves. What happened to made in the USA?

Where was your medicine made? Most people have no clue where the pills in their kitchen drawer or medicine cabinet came from. You can find a country of origin on your apples, your shoes and your underwear, but not on your pill bottle. Foreign made meds dominate the shelves in your local pharmacy. And the prices for those drugs keeps going up.

The Annual Price Increase:

It’s the beginning of a new year and like clockwork you can anticipate that prescription drug prices will rise. Pharmaceutical manufacturers regularly jack up their prices in January.

Take Pfizer, for example.

An industry insider publication, FIERCE Pharma (Jan. 4, 2022), reports that:

“Pfizer is behind the largest number of price jumps, plus the steepest among any company. The company kicked off the New Year by dialing up the price tags of nearly 100 meds, ranging from a 0.5 percent jump on insomnia drug Halcion to a whopping 16.8 percent hike on immunology med Solu-Cortef.”

This might be understandable if the company weren’t riding a tsunami of profits from its COVID vaccine. In 2021 the company took in an estimated $36 billion from its vaccine alone.

FIERCE Pharma projects that 2022 could be even better for Pfizer, with total sales reaching over $100 billion.

That’s because Pfizer’s oral antiviral drug Paxlovid is launching and vaccine sales are still robust.

“That level of revenue would be unheard of in the pharma industry. Johnson & Johnson, the world’s largest biopharma company by revenue for years, recorded $82.6 billion revenue in 2020.

“Of the $101.3 billion, oral COVID drug Paxlovid could contribute $24.2 billion and COVID vaccine Comirnaty $29.7 billion…”

One might imagine that with such incredible sales Pfizer might cut patients some slack.

Instead, FIERCE Pharma reports:

“Meanwhile, Pfizer bumped up the cost of pneumococcal shots Prevnar 13 and Prevnar 20 by 6.5% and 6.6%, respectively. The company’s other drugs to get high-end price increases of 10% include the antibiotic Bicillin CR, the chemotherapy Camptosar, the estrogen-replacement therapy Depo-Estradiol and the anticoagulant Fragmin.”

Of course Pfizer isn’t the only company to raise prices. FIERCE Pharma notes:

“GlaxoSmithKline and Teva Pharmaceuticals each raised prices on more than 30 products. More than 20 price increases from generics juggernaut Teva landed well above the industry average at 9.4%, according to GoodRx. GSK’s price bumps, meanwhile, ranged from 2% to 7%.”

Why Do We Pay So Much?

Americans pay more for their medicines than any other country in the world. That’s true for COVID-related drugs as well as most other treatments.

Vaccines and other COVID medications have by and large been free for patients because the government has footed the bill. Of course, that means we are all paying through our taxes.

Many people have to make difficult decisions about their prescription medicines. The cost of modern pharmaceuticals is often exorbitant. Even when people have insurance, the copay on a medicine that costs thousands of dollars a month can break the bank.

The Story of Abiraterone (Zytiga):

This medication has become an important treatment in the fight against prostate cancer.

According to GoodRx.com:

“The lowest GoodRx price for the most common version of Zytiga is around $10,695.08, 58% off the average retail price of $25,902.61.”

How many people can afford that out of pocket? Remember, GoodRx does not accept insurance or Medicare payments.

The average retail price of generic abiraterone is about $8,000 a month according to GoodRx. If someone has a copay of 20%, the monthly price would be painful. Even using the GoodRx coupon means patients would have to pay a couple of hundred dollars a month out of pocket. That’s way better than thousands, but still out of reach for many men with prostate cancer.

Paying a Lot for Foreign Made Meds:

One way that patients might be able to afford their brand name drugs more readily is to buy them from a legitimate pharmacy in another country. The FDA discourages this practice, however.

According to the official FDA guidelines:

“In most circumstances, it is illegal for individuals to import drugs or devices into the U.S. for personal use because these products purchased from other countries often have not been approved by the FDA for use and sale in the U.S.

“The FDA cannot ensure the safety and effectiveness of medicine purchased over the Internet from foreign sources, storefront businesses that offer to buy foreign medicine for you, or during trips outside the U.S. For these reasons, the FDA recommends only obtaining medicines from legal sources in the U.S.”

What the FDA does not mention, however, is Americans rely primarily on foreign made meds.

A new publication from PharmacyChecker.com demonstrates how flimsy the FDA’s arguments are. Its report is titled “Not Made in the USA: The Global Pharmaceutical Supply Chain and Prospects for Safe Drug Importation.”

If the FDA were so concerned about foreign-made products, why does it allow importation by manufacturers, wholesalers, pharmacy chains and mail-order pharmacies? Of the 100 brand name drugs that Medicare spends the most on, 67 are made in countries like Canada, Japan, the UK or Switzerland. The PharmacyChecker.com research is stunning:

Made in the USA or ?

Strap in! This gets super complicated. The key compound in any medicine is called the active pharmaceutical ingredient (API). Think Prozac. The API is fluoxetine. But there are binders, fillers and colors added to the final dosage form (FDF).

It turns out that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the FDA do not agree on where a drug is made. The CBP says “foreign made” if the active pharmaceutical ingredient comes from a foreign country. The FDA ignores where the API originated as long as the pills are assembled and packaged in the US.

What Are Foreign Made Meds?

The cancer drug Imbruvica (ibrutinib) is pricey. Drugs.com states:

“…the cost for Imbruvica 560 mg is around $484 per tablet or $13,546 for a supply of 28 tablets depending on the pharmacy you visit.”

According to PharmacyChecker.com:

“Imbruvica (ibrutinib). The label reads ‘Active ingredient made in China.’ A drug company representative said that ‘the manufacturing, testing, packaging [of Imbruvica] is done across multiple locations in the USA. This indicates that the API is manufactured in China and the FDF [final dosage form], in the USA.”

I promised confusion. Here it is: Customs and Border Protection says Imbruvica is made in China. The FDA says Imbruvica is made in the USA. You decide.

Where Is Zytiga (Abiraterone) Made?

According to the FDA, this very pricey brand name prostate cancer medicine is manufactured in France. But the CBP says, made in Belgium.

Remember, GoodRx.com states that the list price for the brand name Zytiga is roughly $26,000 for a month’s supply. In Canada, the same brand name Zytiga would cost around $4,500. The generic abiraterone would be between $660 and $900.

Generic drugs are even harder to track down than brand name meds. The API may be made in China. The so-called inactive ingredients could be made in Slovakia and Turkey and the final dosage form (where the pills are actually assembled) could be in India.

Why Can’t American Buy Foreign Made Meds from Canada?

If it’s OK for a pharmacy to sell imported products, why wouldn’t it be safe for a patient to purchase the same identical brand name medications from legitimate Canadian pharmacies?

According to PharmacyChecker.com:

“average prices available of drugs only shipped from Canadian dispensing pharmacies were 70.18 percent lower than average US pharmacy retail prices.”

To learn more about this topic, you can download the in-depth report “Not Made in the USA” at the website PharmacyChecker.com.

More on High Drug Prices:

Find out why our politicians seem reluctant to 1) allow Americans to import their medicines from Canada, 2) save money on prescription drugs and 3) why they are afraid to anger big Pharma at this link:

Will Politicians Ever Lower High Drug Prices?
Drug prices are going up! Surprised? We didn’t think so. Politicians keep promising to lower high drug prices and keep failing miserably.

Here’s a hint: The website OpenSecrets.org follows the money in politics. It reports who gets what from Pharmaceuticals / Health products.

Over the last 17 days, 194 Democrats in the House of Representatives and 164 Republicans in the House of Representatives received a total of $4,054,837. In the Senate, 46 Democrats, 50 Republicans and 1 Independent received $1,858,020.

By the end of 2022, it is likely that tens of millions of dollars will flow to our politicians. According to OpenSecrets.org, two yeas ago the average contribution to a Democratic Senator was $131,987 and the average contribution to a Republican Senator was $107,449. That buys a lot influence. When politicians say they want to lower your drug prices, ask them how much money they take from the pharmaceutical industry!

If you want to learn more about foreign made meds and online Canadian pharmacies, check out our eGuide to Saving Money on Medicine in the Health Guides Section of this website.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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