Seventy-year-old Linda Van Gundy of Deer Creek hoped the drug Xenical would help relieve some minor medical problems.
She never dreamed a single prescription would get her in trouble with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"Buying medicine from outside the U.S. is risky business," says a government flyer that portrays a wicked-looking viper twined around a pill bottle. It was enclosed with a notice that Van Gundy's prescription had been seized on its way into the country. "Think it's safe buying medicine from outside the United States? Think again."
The flyer bore the imprints of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is now a division of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Food and Drug Administration. Without knowing it, Linda had stepped into a long-running debate over importing lower-priced prescription drugs.
According to a December Congressional report, what she did is illegal, but rarely enforced until the past few years. In March, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., forced Customs to reveal that it had changed its policy last Nov. 17, confiscating 13,000 prescriptions in the next four months. It had seized virtually no prescriptions over the same time frame a year earlier, and Nelson charged the change was designed to force seniors into the prescription drug benefit available under new Medicare revisions. Customs officials denied that, but at least one consumer group says it has seen enforcement increased as well.
Linda Van Gundy just sees the bottom line.
"As far as I'm concerned, my government stole my drugs," she snaps. "And they're not going to pay me back for them."
It all started last winter when Linda had some minor health problems she thought would be helped by losing a little weight. Her doctor agreed. Unfortunately, her weight-loss drugs weren't covered under her husband's insurance.
"However, they do cover knee replacements, heart attacks and strokes caused by weight," she says dryly. "Go figure."
Shopping around here for Xenical, the lowest price she could find was $200 for a one-month supply. Shopping the Internet, she could use a Canadian pharmacy to buy it at $99 a month, with free shipping. Since April, she saved $400 and lost six pounds.
But last month, Linda got a letter from federal authorities instead of a shipment. Her Xenical had been seized on its way into the country. The letter said "virtually all prescription drugs imported for personal use into the United States violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act . . . unauthorized importations of prescription drugs are subject to destruction . . ." She was offered the option to voluntarily abandon the Xenical to the government for destruction or have it referred to the FDA for a formal determination of its status. But she was cautioned that it would almost certainly be declared illegal.
Very unhappy, Linda called the office of U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria. She says she was told that it was illegal to have the drugs mailed, but she could get them from Canada if she went up in person.
"Well, if we could afford that, we could afford to pay the price of the drug here in the USA!" she says.
So I called LaHood's office. Acting Chief of Staff Joan DeBoer said LaHood's people get about one call a month on this issue.
"Basically, what we tell folks is that you cannot have prescription drugs shipped to you from Canada. If you do,
Customs will take them away and send them on to the FDA for examination," she says. "What you could do - if you choose to do so - is if you go to Canada yourself and you purchase medication, then you can bring them across the border with you."
But she says the office stops short of actually advising people to do so. That's illegal, too. Only the drug manufacturer can reimport drugs legally. But she also cited a report to Congress from last December, which confirms this was rarely enforced until recently. And it talks about the pressure to make it easier to import drugs.
"Advocates for legalizing drug imports, including many members of Congress, feel that U.S. consumers have shouldered the rising cost of prescription drugs for too long," it says. "Consumer dissatisfaction is magnified, they argue, because some of these drugs were developed through research supported by U.S. taxpayers. If foreign suppliers offer FDA-approved pharmaceuticals at prices significantly lower than in this country, advocates insist that consumers, pharmacists, and wholesalers must have a safe, viable and legal way to import these drugs."
The report shows the stakes are huge. Using 2004 numbers which estimate that Americans older than 65 will spend $1.8 trillion on prescription drugs over the next 10 years, one congressman suggested consumers could save $630 billion over that same decade by buying their drugs outside the United States.
Lynda DeLaforgue, co-director of Citizen Action/Illinois in Chicago, says this debate is behind Linda Van Gundy's problem.
Her organization has seen more seizures since 2003 revisions to Medicare-offered drug benefits.
"Since Medicare Part D there certainly seems a more concerted effort to crack down on drugs through Canada," DeLaforgue says. "I look at this as part of the bigger picture. . . . It's really a situation that's controlled by the large drug manufacturers of this country."
She says that's who wins when people can't get the cheaper drugs overseas. Or when the government can use competitive bids to get Veterans Administration drugs, but not Medicare drugs.
"The law specifically does not allow the government to negotiate for the best price for Part D," she says.
And she encouraged Linda to write LaHood's office to ask for his support on one of the several bills proposed to address this situation.
"Right now, I think with the November elections it has become a partisan issue. It shouldn't be," DeLaforgue says. "These are the people who built this country. We should put politics aside and do what's right."
LaHood says he has cast votes for amendments that would make it easier to import less-expensive prescription drugs.
"Whenever I've had a chance to talk about it, I've told people I support making it legal," he says.
In any event, Linda Van Gundy came out fine. She contacted her Internet provider, which sent a replacement that escaped Customs detection, and she hasn't had a problem since. So she wanted to alert others:
If this happens to you, try again.
And encourage your legislators to do the same.