FDA role restored over mail-order drug imports.
By Susan Heavey
Wednesday, October 4, 2006; 7:17 PM
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. customs officials will still seize prescription drugs imported from Canada through the mail but will hand over enforcement to federal health officials in a policy reversal that one lawmaker said would benefit consumers seeking cheaper medicines.
Since November 2005, customs officials have confiscated medicines ordered through Canadian pharmacies, sent letters to customers notifying them of the violation, and in many cases destroyed the drugs.
But the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency said on Wednesday it will revert to its earlier policy of sending the confiscated orders to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration where enforcement is expected to be more relaxed.
"Now it looks like the government is getting out of the business of harassing these consumers," said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who had called for an investigation into the destruction of drug orders.
The change takes effect on Monday.
"We're still seizing any pharmaceutical coming in that is high-risk for being counterfeit. We're still concerned that if something is counterfeit it's not legal or safe," Customs spokeswoman Lynn Hollinger told Reuters.
Hollinger said the policy change last November led to a greater number of destroyed products. Some experts have said the FDA lacks the resources and staff to thoroughly inspect and handle confiscated imports.
Nelson had requested a congressional investigation into the customs agency's policy after several constituents complained about receiving a letter telling them their drug orders had been seized and would be destroyed. Florida has many senior citizens who rely on prescription drugs.
By law, U.S. consumers cannot legally import prescription medicines from other countries. FDA and other officials say such drugs cannot be properly verified by health regulators and can be dangerous.
Supporters of imported drugs say they are the same as those sold in the United States and offer an affordable alternative. Prescription drugs are significantly cheaper in Canada, because its national health-care system negotiates lower prices.
In another development benefiting those seeking cheaper medicines, President Bush signed a Homeland Security Department spending bill on Wednesday that includes a provision allowing Americans to carry a 90-day supply of medicine from Canada. It does not apply to mail-orders.
The Bush administration adopted the stricter policy on mail-order seizures last year, just after enrollment opened for the controversial Medicare prescription drug benefit.
"We think this stepped-up seizure program was aimed at forcing seniors to enroll in a higher cost program," said Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Nelson.
He added the FDA had previously told Nelson that it would tolerate consumer drug imports from Canada.