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Prescription for Trouble?

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

Concerns About Safety continued...

Still, McGinnis admits there isn't a single documented case of an American killed by prescription drugs bought from licensed Canadian pharmacies, a finding echoed by Health Canada, which regulates the country's prescription industry.

"Unless you walk into the store, you really don't know if it's really a licensed pharmacy," McGinnis tells WebMD, adding that such information would be hard to track. "We've had consumers complain to us that they thought they were ordering from a Canadian web site -- it had a maple leaf -- and the package was postmarked that it came from India, and the product inside was manufactured in India. We really worry about drugs from India."

The majority of drugs sold in state-licensed American pharmacies are manufactured in Puerto Rico, with backup facilities in the U.S. and elsewhere, says McGinnis. "The FDA goes to these manufacturing facilities, no matter where it is in world, and inspects it to make sure there's the right active ingredients and right equipment to make the product. We monitor the shipment and storage, we monitor the product from warehouse to pharmacy. We're comfortable with products sold in the U.S."

City Finds a Way

Michael Albano, the mayor of Springfield, Mass., says he feels the same way about the insulin he buys for his diabetic son and the other drugs purchased for his 2,200 current and retired municipal employees. His city is the nation's first to initiate a program for municipal employees to buy prescription drugs from Canada. They fax or mail prescriptions and the products are sent to their homes. Boston recently announced it would begin a similar city-run program in coming months, and politicians in other states, including most recently Illinois, are considering the same.

"In six months of operation, our city has already saved $1 million in employee drug costs, and we believe we can save $4-$9 million a year in the future," Albano tells WebMD. "This was primarily done as a cost-savings measure, and it's working out great. There have been no complaints (about drug quality) from anyone and we're all very happy."

But the FDA is investigating CanaRx, the supplier to Albano's Springfield Meds program, and recently persuaded a federal judge to shut down Canadian prescription drug sellers operating within the U.S. -- sometimes in strips malls or other storefronts.

"Many products are cheaper in Canada and elsewhere, but there are laws in effect and breaking the law shouldn't be an option," McGinnis says. "I can also save money getting my automobile from Canada, but that doesn't mean it would have the EPA controls that we require."

Yet he tells WebMD that border police have been instructed not to arrest citizens making personal-use prescription drug buys elsewhere. "It's the commercial entities making money off these illegal operations we're after."

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