HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Friday, March 7, 2008

Prescription Drug Prices

In response to President Bush's weekend radio address concerning the dangers of purchasing drugs on the internet, David Lazarus of the LA Times writes about the reason people often turn to the internet to purchase drugs - the cost of prescription drugs.

In his weekend radio address, President Bush warned of rogue pharmacists making potentially dangerous prescription drugs readily available online.  "The Internet has brought about tremendous benefits for those who cannot easily get to a pharmacy in person," Bush said. "However, it has also created an opportunity for unscrupulous doctors and pharmacists to profit from addiction."

That's undoubtedly true, as are most observations that the Internet has become a hotbed of fraud and flimflammery. And I think we can all agree that patients should see doctors face to face, rather than via an online chat or survey, before receiving prescriptions for painkillers and other such meds. But Dr. Bush is addressing a symptom and not the cause of one of the country's top medical problems.

Many Americans, including numerous seniors and people with chronic conditions, obtain prescription drugs from international sources not because they're scratching some itch for faraway places. The shameful reality is that they're looking abroad simply because they can't afford U.S. drug prices. "The United States has the most costly medications in the world, and a large percentage of the population either lacks insurance or is underinsured," said Andy Troszok, who runs a Calgary, Canada-based, mail-order drug supplier called Extended Care Pharmacy.  Nearly all his roughly 30,000 customers are Americans, he said. And increasingly, the people seeking cut-rate meds aren't retirees on fixed incomes but working people in their 30s. . . .

Bush illustrated his concern about online drug sales with the story of San Diego teenager Ryan Haight, who died after overdosing on the painkiller Vicodin in 2001. Bush noted that "with only a few clicks of the mouse, Ryan was able to get a prescription from a doctor he had never met and have the pills sent to his front door."  The president didn't mention that Haight purchased the pills by faking his age, an ailment and a doctor's name. In any case, a very sad story. But what about the thousands if not millions of other people forced to buy their meds online not because they're looking for a buzz but just to stay alive? Forty-seven million Americans lack health insurance and millions more do not have coverage for prescription drugs. . . . .  Any attempt to shut down such "illegal" online drug sales could result in cutting off medical supplies to Americans in need.

What's the answer? Clearly there need to be safeguards to prevent situations like what happened to Ryan Haight, as well as to protect people from possibly dangerous concoctions offered by fly-by-night pharmacies in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.  But until the U.S. can extend health coverage to everyone and limit drug prices to reasonable levels, many Americans will have no choice but to seek the best possible deal for their meds, and this will often require them to look beyond our borders, via the Internet.  . . . .

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