The cost of drugs

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Americans' belief that prescription drugs are cheaper in Canada turns out not to be entirely true, according to a Food and Drug Administration analysis. In some cases, brand-name drugs available in Canada cost as much as five times more than generic versions of the same drugs in the United States.

The FDA compared the cost of seven top-selling treatments for chronic disease: the anti-depressant Prozac, the blood pressure drugs Lopressor, Prinivil and Vasotec, the anti-anxiety medicine Xanax, the anti-seizure medicine Klonopin, and Glucophage, which is used by diabetics.

The agency discovered that all the generic equivalents except the diabetes drug were cheaper in the United States. In the case of Vasotec, the name brand drug in Canada cost five times more than the U.S. generic.

This information ought to interest consumers. An estimated 44 percent of the prescriptions written in the United States are for generic drugs. By law, generic drugs must contain the same active ingredients as the name-brand version.

But generic drugs don't become available until 20 years after the brand-name patent was applied for. If a newer drug is the one you need to take, all the low-priced generics in the world don't matter.

That is why so many people are attempting to buy prescription drugs from Canada. That is why Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has asked the FDA to allow state and local governments to import drugs from Canada.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson of Cape Girardeau is the co-sponsor of a bill that would allow pharmacists and wholesalers to reimport American-made prescription drugs from certain countries, including Canada. Currently, only pharmaceutical companies can buy drugs from foreign markets. Emerson estimates that reimportation of the drugs would save Americans $630 billion over 10 years.

The pharmaceutical industry has countered Emerson's bill with the warning that once American-made drugs leave the county they are subject to counterfeiting and to losing their potency.

The FDA has a similar point of view.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America has proposed instead that pharmacies be allowed to accept Medicare for prescription drugs.

Emerson says both changes need to be made.

Americans are increasingly less willing to pay premium prices for name-brand drugs being sold in foreign countries at much lower cost. The FDA study, while providing useful information, does nothing to dispel consumers' concerns about the soaring cost of name-brand prescription drugs in the United States.

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