MAY 30, 2004
VOLUME 1 NO. 11
 

What's up with the senior shakedown at the FDA?

A busload of elderly Americans buying Canadian
scripts gets the criminal treatment by the FDA

Last October a bus full of Minnesotan seniors was stopped at the US border. The seniors were flush with inexpensive Canadian scripts and the bus was searched by FDA officials who coincidentally just happened to be at the border as they were returning home with their pharmaceutical booty. No one was arrested, but the ordeal left the group shaken. The raid was only recently made public by local Democrat Senator Mark Dayton, who wrote a letter demanding an explanation for the FDA's heavy handed and ill-conceived actions. The FDA responded by calling the incident "unfortunate" and said it did not reflect the agency's usual policy when dealing with individuals reimporting prescriptions for personal use.

But Senator Dayton smelled a rat. "I don't know why they were present at the customs site for that inspection," he says. "It was very unusual that FDA officials would be at a customs site."

In their unpublished response to his letter, kindly provided to National Review of Medicine by the senator's office, the FDA admits that their policy is to allow Americans to bring back small quantities of essential scripts from Canada. They claim US customs officials requested the bus inspection.

TOO MUCH, MAGIC BUS
The stopped bus was part of the Rx Express service started by Senator Dayton in June 2000. The independently wealthy senator donates his entire government salary to the Rx Express, which provides buses to drive cash-strapped seniors from Minnesota to Manitoba where they meet a Canadian doctor and get their scripts filled. The drugs, often significantly cheaper, are all the seniors pay for the ride, hotel, meals and even the physician consultation are provided at no charge to the seniors. The idea has caught on elsewhere in the US, with copycat operations shipping seniors over the border in droves.

Senator Dayton can see how this whole situation might look bizarre to Canadians. "The Rx Express is an interim solution until the US government does what the Canadian government does very effectively negotiate lower prices for these medicines for the benefit of all its citizens," he says. "I give your government great credit for showing that this can be done effectively and it results in prices that are often a third or a fifth the price of what the same medicine costs in the United States." The senator hopes the Rx Express service will eventually become obsolete.

While services like Rx Express currently operate in a legal grey area, support for them is growing amongst the US's power elite. Minnesota's Republican governor Tim Pawlenty, for one, is adding some revolutionary fervour to the reimportation debate. In a Congressional hearing last October he testified that "There's a rebellion brewing across America. It is the prescription drug equivalent of the Boston Tea Party. Americans are fed up."

Indiana Republican congressman Dan Burton who couldn't exactly be accused of being a Canadophile judging by his Helms-Burton law condemning Canadians who do business in Cuba is outraged over the FDA's Canadian prescription policy. He publicly blasted the agency "You scare the hell out of seniors" and questions the legitimacy of their tactics: "How can FDA officials feel that Americans are violating US law when three years ago the President signed into law a bill that Congress had passed? This bill clarified that it was legal for Americans to purchase prescription drugs internationally."

Congressman Burton also wrote an opinion piece for the Indianapolis Star saying that the FDA "needs to remember a simple fact: A prescription that a patient cannot afford to buy is neither safe nor effective." Senator Dayton agrees. "Many elderly citizens in America forego their medicines or take just a partial dose because they can't afford the full price," he says.

Dr Elizabeth Wennar, of the Coalition for Access to Affordable Prescription Drugs also attacked the reasoning of drug reimportation foes in a Congressional hearing. "Some would have you believe that Canada's pharmaceutical supply is unsafe and of inferior quality," she testified. "This attempt to frighten individuals that are already terrified of compromising their health by not being able to take their medications, creates a form of terrorism that is inexcusable."

 

 

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