Everyone wants to save money on medicine. That’s why generic drugs have become so popular. Last year, 84 percent of the prescription medications dispensed from U.S. pharmacies were generic. The Food and Drug Administration enthusiastically supports generic-drug substitution (Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, October 2013).
The majority of our generic drugs are made abroad in countries like China, India, Brazil and Romania. They have to be imported by pharmacy chains and wholesalers before Americans can buy them at the local drugstore.
The FDA has no problem with such importation, even though there have been manufacturing scandals affecting these generic drugs. What the agency hates, however, is the idea of consumers buying brand-name medicines from other countries, such as Canada.
The feds maintain that this practice is dangerous, exposing Americans to tainted or counterfeit medicine. The FDA prohibits private importation, even though it doesn’t enforce this ban vigorously.
The FDA seems to be following the “Big Pharma” playbook. The pharmaceutical industry has fought tooth and nail to prevent patients and states from buying less-expensive brand-name medications from outside the country.
Maine is about to throw a monkey wrench into the FDA’s machinery, though. State legislators passed a law allowing direct purchase of mail-order drugs from abroad.
The Wall Street Journal in October analyzed the cost of the popular heartburn pill Nexium. When the city of Portland buys medicines for its employees, it costs as much as $465.81 for a 90-day supply through its insurance company. An employee has to kick in an additional 25 percent as a co-pay of $155.27, for a total of $621.08.
If the city buys the same brand-name Nexium from a Canadian supplier, it pays $200.90. The employee has no co-pay.
A three-month supply of the cholesterol-lowering drug Crestor costs Portland and its employees $599.12. From Canada, the same brand-name statin is $147.90.
It is entirely possible that the brand-name medications imported from Canada are made in the same plants as those sold in U.S. pharmacies. But the FDA is reported to be planning a campaign to warn Americans about the dangers of imported drugs.
What is not mentioned in all the posturing is that this is primarily about brand names, not generics. The cost of generic drugs is so low in the U.S. that there is no incentive for importing such medications.
If a 90-day supply of the cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin only costs $10 at a big-box discount drugstore, it would be nonsensical to import it from Canada or Australia. The price from abroad would be four or five times higher than in your local pharmacy.
One of the reasons that people go to the trouble of buying brand-name drugs from Canada is that they don’t trust the FDA’s ability to monitor generics made in India or China. There is more information about how to use generic drugs wisely and about drugs from Canada in our Guide to Saving Money on Medicine. Anyone who would like a copy, please send $3 in check or money order with a long (No. 10), stamped (66 cents), self-addressed envelope to: Graedons’ People’s Pharmacy, No. CA-99, P.O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027. It also can be downloaded for $2 from our website: www.peoplespharmacy.com.