When Congress passed the landmark Medicare reform bill last year, critics opposed a provision banning Americans from buying "Canadian" prescription drugs. For several years, health care policy analysts and health safety experts have produced a cacophony of powerful objections to importation based on worries about safety and pricing.
Now adding to the din of serious concern comes a study from the Department of Health and Human Services produced by a respected, international expert panel. Released in mid-December, the report provides fresh and irrefutable evidence that banning what consumers believe are "Canadian" drugs protects Americans from harm. The report also dispels another vote-garnering argument proffered by pro-importation politicians by casting doubt that Canadian drugs are cheaper.
In analyzing the effects of legalizing importation from non-U.S. sources, a critical finding of the study echoes concerns of importation opponents that drugs purchased from Canada are often not, in fact, Canadian. It is estimated that as many as 70 percent of Internet websites that have every appearance of operating in Canada, aren't. Their drugs are often produced in unsafe, unsanitary facilities in places such as India, the Dominican Republic and Pakistan. They are either minimally effective or outright counterfeits with no active ingredients. And the American patient ordering from his computer has little chance of detecting that his drugs come from foreign manufacturers or criminal counterfeiters.
Demonstrating its own concerns, Health Canada, Canada's version of our Food and Drug Administration, refuses to vouch for the quality of drugs that flow through Canada to the U.S. Its position is that the country receiving foreign prescription drugs bears responsibility for the quality of those drugs. The Canadian government echoes the concerns of its Health Department and goes even further, questioning whether or not to continue allowing Canadian pharmacies to export drugs to the U.S. at all.
Canadian officials recognize that the drug supply of some 30 million Canadians cannot possibly fill the needs of nearly 300 million Americans. Recently, Canadian Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh has repeatedly stated that Canada "cannot be the drugstore of the United States" and threatened to impose new regulations that would essentially bar the sales of actual Internet pharmacies by the end of January.
Legalizing importation would ensure that Americans take drugs from unknown sources for which nobody has taken responsibility. And that, says the HHS report, is a prescription for disaster. "Many transactions," the report offers, "are occurring via poorly regulated and occasionally bogus Internet operations that have been documented ... to provide consumers with inferior products."
It's no surprise that prescription drugs coming from unverifiable sources is a dangerous game, but few anticipated that the report would find that Canadian prescription drugs are not necessarily cheaper than their American counterparts.
It states that generic drugs, most widely used by Americans, are usually less expensive here in the U.S. Americans can also often find lower prices for drugs by shopping around or utilizing readily available prescription drug discount cards.
Addressing the questions of how consumers could most effectively spend their health care dollars, the study's authors contend that the enormous expense of screening imported drugs would more than offset any cost savings. "The public rightly expects that ... imported drugs [would] be safe and effective," they wrote. "Substantial resources would ... be needed to ensure adequate inspection of imported drug products."
The study raises a new red flag for Americans seeking "Canadian" prescription drugs and confirms that there is no balance between safety and cost. The U.S. has the safest drug supply in the world, and importing danger based on false cost concerns is simply not worth the risk.
HHS demonstrated once and for all that a Canadian drug cure-all is a hazardous myth. With such overwhelming evidence of the dangers inherent in legalizing importation, it is unconscionable that any politician would continue to play Russian Roulette with the integrity of our medicine supply.
Bang? We will just have to wait and see.
Kerri Houston is Executive Director of the Project for the American Health Care Center.