Thursday, February 09, 2006

Feds seizing Canadian prescription drugs

Minnesotans who rely on getting medications through over-the-border pharmacies have been getting a letter from the Customs Service instead.

Mark Brunswick, Star Tribune

Minnesotans buying mail-order prescription drugs from Canada are having medications confiscated by U.S. Customs in escalating numbers, a step that has some worried that life-saving supplies may not reach customers on time.

Scores of participants in mail-order drug programs, including those involved through the state of Minnesota's websites, the Minnesota Senior Federation, and Canadian pharmacies have had their shipments intercepted since the first of the year.

The confiscations are making some people anxious that the government could take legal action against them. Others are concerned that federal authorities are keeping tabs on what medications they take.

Buying prescription drugs from abroad is illegal, but federal officials have allowed individuals to import medications for their own use.

It is unclear why federal authorities have increased confiscations now.

Charlotte Bystrom of Crane Lake, Minn., was expecting a package of six medications in mid-January. Instead, the 69-year-old got a letter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection telling her the $600 shipment had been "intercepted."

The letter gave her two options: She could voluntarily "abandon" the drugs and waive any rights to the property; or she could request that they be sent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for testing and disposal. Either way, she wasn't getting her medications back.

It was the first time in the three years she has been participating in a Minnesota Senior Federation drug import program that such a seizure had occurred.

"I thought I would be in jail," Bystrom said. "I could order a dress from Canada or shoes from Canada. I could order nearly everything I wanted from Canada -- except drugs."

"I felt like the drug companies are [calling] the shots here," she added. "They're controlling our government. I felt violated, like something was stolen from me."

Orders can be reshipped

The Minnesota Senior Federation, which operates its own drug importation program, says it has seen a marked increase in drug seizures.

At least 25 people have reported having their medications seized in the past three weeks, compared with five or so a month before that.

The number of recent seizures could be considerably higher, possibly more than 100.

"I'm afraid this is a much bigger program and we're just hearing about a portion of it," said Lee Graczyk, issues director for the federation.

The Canadian pharmacy association that deals with the Minnesota Senior Federation has experienced 2,000 drug seizures in the past three months, representing 6 to 10 percent of its volume.

That is a considerable spike in confiscations, which usually account for about a half of a percent of its volume.

Neither representatives from the Chicago field office of Customs and Border Protection nor officials from the Washington, D.C. office responded to repeated inquiries about the confiscations.

As in Bystrom's case, people receiving the letters are being advised by mail-order programs to contact their Canadian pharmacy, which should re-ship the order at no cost. Bystrom received the new shipment without incident.

"It still makes me angry," she said. "I just am disgusted with the state of affairs in our country right now."

The confiscations have affected programs run by the State of Minnesota as well, but the impact is unclear. State employees who use the program have reported having their medications confiscated in increasing numbers. But state officials say they do not know if there has been a surge in confiscations, because pharmacies alerted them to the increases only near the end of the year.

A posting on the program's website urges affected state workers to contact their Canadian pharmacy to have the order re-shipped. "It's unlikely to be intercepted a second time," the website says.

State program under fire

The confiscations are renewing criticism of the state program, which is beset by concerns about its effectiveness.

In late 2003, when he announced the program would begin, Gov. Tim Pawlenty predicted it could cover nearly 700,000 Minnesotans and save the state "tens of millions of dollars a year."

January sales through the four Canadian mail-order pharmacies in the program were down 17 percent from December. The number of prescriptions ordered last month was the lowest since June 2004, a few months after the program began in January of that year. Sales peaked in January 2005 at $153,130 and, except for one month, have declined since then. Since the program began, 18,400 prescriptions have been ordered.

This week, members of the House DFL caucus may call for an end to the program, citing the threats of confiscation and the low participation.

"This is an initiative that was all flash and no substance," said House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul.

He said the program should be scrapped and the state should focus on using its buying power to reduce prescription prices in Minnesota.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the program was never designed to provide services to large numbers, but to people who might have been ordering prescriptions from unknown and potentially unsafe discounters.

"It has been a significant program that has assisted thousands of Minnesotans who are seeking a safe and affordable outlet for their prescriptions," McClung said.

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