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Prescription for Trouble?

Despite being illegal, more Americans combat high prescription drug costs by buying abroad.
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WebMD Feature

She's a 70-year-old grandmother and retired hospital social worker who requests anonymity because earlier this year, she committed the first crime in her life: She had drugs smuggled in from Colombia. Not cocaine or marijuana, but Lamisil tablets to treat a stubborn toenail fungus.

"At my local pharmacy, it cost more than $7 a pill -- and I needed a three-month supply," she tells WebMD. "I can't afford that, so I wrote to a friend who lives in Colombia. The same prescription that cost $440 at the Target pharmacy cost $180 down there. And when she mailed it to me, it came in the same bottle that my pharmacist had.

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"It's a sin what they're doing to us here," she says with a sigh.

That "sin" is the inability to cover the cost of their prescription drugs in the U.S., prompting growing numbers of Americans -- and in particular, seniors like her -- to get their medications outside of our borders.

Canada is the most popular destination, where many brand-name prescription drugs cost up to 80% less than in America -- and from where this suburban Philadelphia granny now gets her TriCor, a medication to lower triglyceride levels.

"I have a PPO drug plan, but it only covers generics. If I need a brand-name drug, I have to pay for it out-of-pocket. Neither Lamisil nor TriCor has a generic equivalent covered by my insurance. And TriCor costs half as much in Canada as it costs here -- almost $100 less per prescription."

She recently learned of the Canadian pharmacy from a friend, who buys her own prescription drugs there at the advice of her son -- a doctor. Both mail their prescriptions northward and the drugs are mailed back to them. "I took it to my doctor after getting it and he said it was the same drug that is manufactured and sold here."

And that's why, technically, she's a criminal: Federal law prohibits the "reimport" of U.S. drugs by anyone other than the manufacturer.

The authorities aren't about to arrest her -- officials acknowledge this is illegal activity but say they won't act on individual citizens who are securing prescription drugs for their personal use. However, there is concern about growing numbers of these "border buys," which especially came to light in 2003.

Concerns About Safety

"Our specific concern is that we don't know what consumers are getting, like we do when products are purchased from state-licensed pharmacies in the U.S.," says Thomas McGinnis, PharmD, FDA director of pharmacy affairs. "If you're going to order medications from outside the U.S., you may get the same thing as what's at your local pharmacy, but you may not. It's a 'buyer beware' situation. We're concerned about the safety of these drugs."

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