Demand for cheaper prescription drugs from Canada will continue as long as U.S. medicines remain so expensive, consumer advocates told a federal task force examining whether safe imports are possible.
Demand for cheaper prescription drugs from Canada will continue as long as U.S. medicines remain so expensive, consumer advocates told a federal task force examining whether safe imports are possible. Cheaper prices would continue to be a powerful lure even if importation remains illegal, the panel was told. “The fact that busloads of Americans are crossing the border buying medications or going online to buy their medication is a clear sign that the public finds the price of prescription drugs is too high in the United States,” said Alison Rein from the National Consumers League. Some of the consumer groups were also skeptical that Canadian drugs are less safe than those bought in the United States where counterfeiting, package-tampering and other problems also occur. Peter Wyckoff, head of the Minnesota Senior Federation, said his group has organized a number of bus trips to Canada and has been able to save members an average of 49 percent. None of his members have complained about their imported prescriptions, he said. It was the first of six hearings by the 13-member U.S. task force that includes officials from the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other federal agencies. RISKY BUSINESS? Many U.S. patients have imported medicines via Internet pharmacies or trips across the border to Canada. And some state and local governments have set up programs to help residents purchase medicines abroad where governments negotiate with drug companies to set lower prices. The U.S. government maintains that buying medicines from other countries is risky because U.S. regulators cannot assure the medicines are safe and effective. Some supporters of importation accuse regulators of simply trying to protect drugmakers’ profits, a charge government officials deny. The pharmaceutical industry has argued that higher U.S. prices are needed to offset price controls in other countries and pay for the growing costs of developing new drugs. Creating one new treatment now costs about $800 million, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. At Friday’s hearing, reserved for consumer groups, some advocates were also skeptical of importation as a lasting solution. “That is only a Band-Aid solution to the problem because the ultimate problem is drug pricing,” Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. Consumer groups urged the task force to look beyond Canada and study the European Union, which allows member countries to buy drugs from each other. They also suggested officials certify the best online pharmacies and link to them on federal Web sites. In the meantime, regulators could take steps to educate consumers about generic drugs, prescription discount cards and other ways to save money, they said. The task force, initiated as part of the Medicare bill that passed in December 2003, must present its report by the end of this year.(Source: Reuters, March 2004)