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Foreign drugs can be a risk or a bargain

Legislation would create a system for legally buying drugs from other countries.

March 15, 2009|Jerry Hirsch

Obtaining low-cost drugs from Canada, Mexico and other foreign countries is a controversial method for shaving prescription expenses.

In most instances it is illegal, but authorities often take a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to the practice as long as consumers are purchasing nonnarcotic drugs for personal use.

Residents of border states such as Michigan and California have frequented foreign pharmacies for years. Buying from abroad via the Internet or mail order carries additional risk, experts warn, because consumers can't be sure of the source of the drugs.

This month, Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) introduced drug importation legislation that creates a legal and regulated system for buying drugs from foreign countries.

The bill would allow U.S.-licensed pharmacies and drug wholesalers to import FDA-approved medications from Canada, European countries, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Prescription drug prices in those nations are 35% to 55% less than in the U.S.

Dorgan and Snowe said the measure could save American consumers $50 billion over the next decade. The legislation is endorsed by Consumers Union and other consumer groups.

The measure faces opposition from the pharmaceutical industry.

The legislation would also allow individual consumers to purchase prescription drugs for their personal use from what the senators called "safe, reliable, FDA-inspected Canadian pharmacies."

"This creates a certification system and a safe avenue to obtain prescriptions," said Bill Vaughan, health policy analyst for Consumers Union in Washington. "It could be really useful to institutional buyers such as Kaiser Permanente and other health plans as well as the government."

For now, consumers should be careful.

"I would not be buying drugs from the Caribbean islands," Vaughan said.

Dan Mendelson, chief executive of Avalere Health, an information and consulting firm, agreed.

Some foreign pharmacies are skirting international trade rules and medical regulations, he said, and it is nearly impossible to determine where their drug supplies come from.

It also might not make financial sense, he said.

Insurance companies won't count such gray-market purchases against an annual deductible, so it might only serve to delay the point at which reimbursement benefits kick in, he said.

It's better for people to look for less costly drugs and generics at home, he said.

"There's often something that is equally effective and less expensive," Mendelson said.

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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