October 21, 2002
Americans are increasingly finding their own solution to the problem of high-priced prescription medicines. It's called Canada and it's as close as the Internet.
Numerous Web sites have sprung up that offer to fill U.S. prescriptions in Canada. It's a convoluted process. The consumer places an order, then faxes a copy of his prescription so that it can be co-signed by a Canadian physician, filled by a Canadian pharmacy and then sent to the U.S. consumer.
The savings can be steep. For example, a month's supply of 30-mg Paxil capsules was $106.99 at a Northern Virginia CVS pharmacy, $76.57 at Costco and $48 at canadapharmacy.com.
The phenomenon has sparked official outrage in Canada but U.S. reaction is muted and many insurance companies are routinely reimbursing policyholders for prescriptions filled in Canada or elsewhere.
"If the ingredient is U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved, we'll honr the claim whether it is filled in Tacoma or Timbuktu," a spokesman for Washington state's Premiera Blue Cross and Blue Shield said recently.
UnitedHealth Group, which writes policies for AARP members, announced a few weeks ago that it would approve prescriptions filled "offshore" and many other HMOs already do so, including Humana and Anthem
It's technically illegal for individuals to buy prescription drugs outside the U.S. but the FDA has not taken any enforcement actions and sources indicate it does not intend to. Rather, it's the Canadian pharmacists and doctors who bear a greater risk of official sanctions.
Congress was considering legislation to make it legal for Americans to "re-import" drugs bought outside the U.S. but adjourned before taking action on the measure. Earlier this year, many lawmakers staged bus trips to Canada with seniors looking for cheaper drug prices.
Three states -- Arizona, North Dakota and Rhode Island -- have asked that Canadian drugs not be shipped into their states but it's not known how effect that's had.