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Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)

Canada’s Health Minister said Wednesday he will work to enact new regulations that could prevent Americans from buying prescription drugs from his country unless they have a personal relationship with a doctor there, raising concerns among South Floridians who get their drugs from Canada.

Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh also said he will work with Canada’s Parliament to enact new regulations to ban bulk drug exports to the United States if they would cause a shortage for Canadians. Several bills in the U.S. Congress seek to legalize such shipments, which are now banned here.

It’s unclear whether the action would shut down networks that supply consumers who buy drugs from Canada over the Internet or from storefront operations. But Dosanjh’s announcement stirred concern among some of the thousands of local consumers who buy from Canada.

Neville Hyman, of Pompano Beach, who spends $3,000 each year on drugs he orders from Canadian pharmacies, said many older people could face higher drug bills that would be hard to pay.

“The impact on senior citizens here is going to be tremendous. At least 95 percent of the people down here, who have no affiliation with Canada, obviously can’t see a family physician in Canada,” said Hyman. “The whole thing is really a political football. I do know that people here cannot do anything about it. You can’t ask foreign governments to do what you want.”

Some South Floridians order directly from Canadian pharmacies, or have their physicians fax prescriptions for them. Others, like Susan Litchfield of Delray Beach, who gets her generic cholesterol drug from Canada, visit a storefront operation that handles the faxing for her.

“I just got my shipment the other day. They’re very nice. They fax the prescription to the distributor and it’s mailed directly to me, and they remind me when I have to see the doctor,” Litchfield said.

In a teleconference with American reporters, Dosanjh said, “Canada cannot be the drug store for the United States of America. We have a supply adequate for ourselves and a pricing regime for our people.”

Several states, including Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Wisconsin, already have banded together to allow the purchase of Canadian imports through a Canadian pharmacy benefit manager that operates a network of online pharmacies. Florida is not among them.

FDA regulations do not permit the importation by individuals of prescription drugs from Canada, but for the most part those rules have not been enforced. Dosanjh estimated that the Canadian international pharmacies have grown from $300,000 in their first year of operation to annual sales of $1.6 billion per year in Canadian dollars.

Dosanjh said he wants to tighten regulations on individuals who get their prescriptions from Canadian Internet pharmacies “to require an established patient-practitioner relationship,” and said he will work with doctor groups in Canada to define what constitutes a doctor-patient relationship. Those groups have said it is unethical for Canadian doctors to co-sign a prescription that was written by an American doctor without having seen the patient — the current practice by which many Americans obtain drugs from Canada.

“These are regulations that have to be crafted,” Dosanjh said. “I want to make sure I consult with the doctors who think it is unethical for doctors to sign so many prescriptions a day.” No action on either bulk shipments or individual orders is likely until this fall at the earliest, he said.

Dosanjh said he is not trying to shut down the Canadian international pharmacies.

“It is not our intent to kill the industry, but to protect the safety ofconsumers, and make sure medicine is practiced in a safe way,” Dosanjh said.

Andy Troszok, president of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, said he agrees with Dosanjh on the halting of bulk shipments when necessary to preserve the Canadian supply. He said he holds out hope that a compromise can be reached that will allow individual consumers to continue getting their prescriptions filled by his member businesses.

“He did say you need to establish a [doctor-patient] relationship, but he didn’t define it as face-to-face,” Troszok said. “He was leaning toward it, but he didn’t define it. Our argument is there already is a relationship. Our Canadian doctors piggyback on the patient’s relationship with an American doctor.”

For most South Florida consumers, traveling to Canada to get a prescription filled would be out of the question.

“I wouldn’t be able to go to Canada,” said Mary Ann Monet of West Palm Beach, who is being treated for ovarian cancer. Monet, who lost her husband to Parkinson’s disease last fall, said before his death they were spending $6,000 a year out of pocket for prescription drugs, even with getting some at cheaper prices in Canada.

“If the Canadian people want to do this, I think that’s disastrous,” she said. “I know a lot of people who get their drugs from Canada. You go to the drug store and you hear, ‘OK, that will be $300.’ It’s just so revolting that the drug companies have such power over the White House. It hasn’t changed and I don’t think it’s going to.”

A consumer group based in California issued a statement that echoed Monet’s opinion.

“Americans are only buying drugs from Canada because President Bush and Congress, with their cozy ties to the pharmaceutical industry, refuse to support a prescription drug bulk purchasing plan,” said David Fink, consumer advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “Seniors and other patients shouldn’t have to rely on other countries to get the drugs they need.”
Nancy McVicar can be reached at [email protected] or 954-356-4593

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