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RX FROM ACROSS THE BORDER SENIORS GOING TO MEXICO, CANADA TO BUY CHEAPER PRESCRIPTION DRUGS.

Byline: Evan Pondel Staff Writer

Lillene Fifield found herself short of breath on a trip to Mexico last spring.

Her asthma medication had diminished to only a few pumps and she was far from the U.S. border. Straining for options, Fifield decided to seek out a local pharmacy.

``Obviously, I didn't have a prescription or anything, so I was a little worried I wouldn't be able buy the same medication,'' said the 60-year-old from Studio City.

Fifield eventually wandered into a pharmacy that appeared reputable. The shelves were stocked with labels she recognized and the pharmacists spoke English.

``So all I did was show them the drug I was taking, and they handed me the same medication,'' she said.

She saved money in the deal, too.

What Fifield stumbled upon - a cheap and easy alternative to getting American pharmaceuticals at home - is catching on. More and more older Americans are walking across the border these days to purchase medication. Some are even being encouraged to do so.

UnitedHealth Group Inc. and AARP Foundation, a nonprofit group that assists seniors, notified members last month that those who purchase drugs in Canada and other countries will receive compensation.

The managed care company sent a letter to about 97,000 members stating that the company has ``made an administrative decision to waive the requirement that a prescription drug be purchased in the U.S. or one of its territories.''

``But this has been a part of our members' insurance programs for a long time,'' said Julie Alexis, manager of health products for AARP. ``By no means are we endorsing that people travel to foreign countries to purchase prescription drugs.''

Even so, restating a policy that UnitedHealth members have been entitled to since 1997 says a lot more about the health care industry as a whole. The Center for Consumer Health Choices, Consumers Union, said UnitedHealth is exemplifying the cost-cutting measures that are epidemic in the industry.

Purchasing a drug in a foreign country because it's cheaper also has its inherent health risks. ``It's buyer beware out there,'' said Jerry Meyers, a pharmacist at De Soto Pharmacy and Soda Shop. ``When you buy a drug in a different country, sometimes you just don't know what you're going to get.''

Fifield didn't.

Usually, her prescription calls for 120 doses of Serevent, an asthma drug manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline. But in Mexico, the pharmacist handed her a can of Serevent with only 60 doses. And while the Serevent that Fifield purchased had an identical label to the drug she bought in the United States - the difference in dosage could have caused serious complications.

``I have such mixed reactions about this. Part of me thinks it's OK if people buy those drugs because it's for less money, but the other part of me feels like this could be very dangerous,'' Fifield said.

Managed care companies agree that buying drugs in a foreign country could be hazardous. But some are covering those practices as a supposed benefit to the consumer.

``Some health plans are looking for innovative ways to keep the pharmacy benefit alive,'' said Lisa Haines, a spokeswoman for Woodland Hills-based Health Net. ``As of right now, Health Net has not looked into such a benefit. I would imagine there are a number of regulatory issues involved in implementing this kind of policy.''

Those regulatory issues most likely protect large managed care companies from being sued by a patient that received the wrong drug in a foreign country. ``And that's because quality control is difficult to measure in a foreign country,'' said Dr. Samuel Fink, an internist in Tarzana. ``I certainly hope my patients aren't buying pills in Mexico.''

But Canada is different.

Most health professionals say that buying drugs in Canada is a relatively safe practice because of the stringent regulations. So stringent, that a Canadian pharmacy wouldn't accept a prescription written by a U.S. doctor.

``I would have no problem buying prescription drugs for me, my patients or my family in Canada,'' Fink said.

Nor would Dr. Joel Teplinsky, a Sherman Oaks-based plastic surgeon.

``Although it does really depend on the drug and situation,'' he said.

Doctors usually know a patient's history. For that reason, filling a prescription in a foreign country could be dangerous.

``Still, if you know what you're buying and it's significantly less expensive, I'm not entirely against it,'' Teplinsky said.

Mim Broderick, 83, has never endured any serious health complications. But if she was sick and low on funds, ``I would be the first person on a Greyhound to Tijuana,'' she said. ``I know there are risks, and sure it could be dangerous, but those drugs are so expensive right now. All of this speaks to the health care crisis in the U.S. We shouldn't have to go to Canada or Mexico to buy drugs.''

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Lillene Fifield bought the asthma medication on the right in Mexico without a prescription. It's the same brand as the U.S. version on the left.

(2 -- color) Lillene Fifield, Studio City

Phil McCarten/Staff Photographer
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Oct 16, 2002
Words:849
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