What's up with the senior shakedown
at the FDA?
A busload of elderly Americans
scripts gets the criminal treatment by the FDA
By Peter Woodford
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In their unpublished response to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.
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
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,"
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."