Canada threatens drug cutoff

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HEALTH: Many people, among them Inland seniors, buy the lower-cost medications.

The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA)

Inland seniors and their advocates reacted with fear and disappointment to a Canadian proposal to restrict the cross-border flow of prescription drugs.

Canadian Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh said Wednesday that the country intends to ban the bulk export of prescription drugs when the volume of American purchases lowers supplies at home. But he left vague how the ban would be put into place — and whether it would affect the thousands of individual purchases that take place across the U.S.-Canada border and over the Internet.

The U.S. government does not regulate prescription-drug prices, and Americans pay more for drugs than any other nation. U.S. lawmakers are pushing to legalize the importation of prescription drugs over the Internet from Canada — a plan that Canadians fear could lead to drug shortages there.

Four bills are pending in Congress but are opposed by the pharmaceutical lobby, the Food and Drug Administration and President Bush.

Americans spend an estimated $700 million per year on drugs from Canada. The Canadian government sets drug prices in the country — about 40 percent lower than in the United States — as part of its national health-care system.

“I’d just have to pay more” if Canadian imports stop, said Oretta Baker of Grand Terrace. “What else can I do?” Baker lives on Social Security and buys about $300 worth of drugs a month, including some from Canada, she said. She estimates that the drugs she orders from north of the border are about 40 percent cheaper than the American equivalents.

Several storefront businesses shipping Canadian drugs to Americans sprung up in the Inland area in recent years, but most have been shut down by the government. It is illegal for Americans to bring in Canadian drugs, though the law is rarely enforced against individuals.

Some Americans in northern states go to Canada to buy cheaper drugs. Canadian-drug buyers in California are more likely to order over the Internet, said Jerry Flanagan, health-care policy director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

The Los Angeles-based foundation lobbies for bulk drug purchases by the U.S. government, and for an end to restrictions on Canadian drug imports.

JoAnne Johnson, who runs the Grand Terrace Senior Information Referral, said some senior citizens she deals with get drugs from Canada, while others travel to Mexico. She worries that if the former avenue is blocked, more might opt for Mexico, “and I’m not sure about the quality of those Mexican drugs,” Johnson said.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that researches health-care issues, Americans spent $162.4 billion on prescription drugs in 2002. It predicts that figure will rise more than 10 percent a year until at least 2013, as more and better drugs hit the market.

Typically, Americans who want to buy Canadian drugs go through a Canadian Internet pharmacy. The American faxes a prescription to the pharmacy, which will get it co-signed by a Canadian pharmacist who has reviewed the patient’s health history. The Canadian mails the drugs across the border.

Dosanjh said he intended to introduce legislation when the House of Commons reconvenes this fall that would allow for the temporary ban of bulk exports when supplies are running low at home. He said the definition of patient-physician relationship between American patients and Canadian doctors had to be clarified.

In addition to the bills before Congress, other efforts are under way to bring down drug costs for Americans. Medicare, the federal program for elderly American health care, is set to begin offering prescription drug benefits next year.

“The fact that the cost of prescription drugs are so prohibitively high that Americans have to go abroad to get them at a reasonable price is a shame,” said Mark Beach, a spokesman for California’s division of AARP, the largest lobbying group for older Americans.

Some also worry that Canadian Internet pharmacies are sending potentially dangerous drugs to Americans.

The FDA has reported cases of Canadian Internet pharmacies shipping counterfeit drugs from Third-World countries to Americans. The agency also has shut down several companies illegally importing drugs from Canada.

“Seniors have learned what they need to do, what they have to do undercover, when it’s not a legitimized process,” said Lu Molberg, director of the Riverside County Office on Aging.

A closed border likely won’t deter seniors from finding cheaper drugs elsewhere, including Mexico, Molberg said. And the debatable safety of cheaper foreign drugs would be a risk worth taking for some seniors if they were forced to miss doses because of the cost.

“Human nature is ruled by doing what you need to do in the short run to survive. That’s just how we’re built,” she said.

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