For Americans stuck paying high prices for medication, there has long been a classic dodge: Rather than shelling out at U.S. rates, those with a little creativity and a willingness to bend (well, OK, break) the law can get lower-cost meds from Canada.
Granted, there are dangers — some Canadian purveyors sell counterfeit pharmaceuticals of varying quality — but with a little bit of research, it isn’t hard to find a reputable Canadian pharmacy that is willing to sell brand-name drugs at a significant discount — and mail them to an American address.
Even the legal danger isn’t completely clear-cut. While importing drugs from foreign pharmacies is illegal under the Prescription Drug Marketing Act of 1987, the FDA has, historically, often overlooked people ordering up to a 90-day supply of drugs for personal use. Even so, it is still, officially, illegal to import drugs from Canadian pharmacies.
Unless you live in Maine.
On Wednesday, Maine became the first state to allow residents to directly import prescription drugs from foreign pharmacies. For years, companies and municipalities in the state — including the city of Portland — had worked out deals with Canadian pharmacies, through which they were able to get low-cost Canadian drugs shipped in for their citizens and employees. But last year, facing pressure from pharmaceutical companies and trade groups, the state’s attorney general made it illegal for employers to import drugs. The new law, however, makes it possible for patients to deal directly with Canadian pharmacies.
Not surprisingly, the new law was met with an immediate legal challenge from drug manufacturers. Citing concerns over customer safety, Maine pharmacy groups and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Portland. The outcome of that lawsuit could have a major impact on other states that are considering relaxing their drug importation policies.
It’s easy to chalk up the pharmacy lobby’s alleged customer safety concerns as window dressing for their attempts to preserve their control over the U.S. drug market. However, given that there have been some very real examples of unethical pharmacies selling doctored or improperly-labeled products, the lobbyists’ claims can’t be so easily dismissed.
The irony is that the old system, under which companies and municipalities were able to directly contract with Canadian pharmacies to negotiate low prescription drug prices, actually provided an extra level of safety to consumers. These groups, with larger resources and more purchasing leverage, were in a good position to determine the legitimacy of the pharmacies, as well as in a good position to bargain on prices. Individual consumers, on the other hand, are potentially more vulnerable to scams, and less able to negotiate. In other words, in the name of consumer safety, Maine’s attorney general took a bite out of consumers’ pocketbooks last year. And now, in the name of consumer finances, the state may have passed a law that may endanger consumer health.
Bruce Watson is DailyFinance’s Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.