Florida Stores Help Consumers Bypass Federal Ban on Imported Drugs

Owners claim to cut medication prices by up to 70%

A hardy market for imported low-cost prescription drugs has taken root in Florida, nourished by older Americans and tolerant regulators, according to a report from Kaiser Health News.

About 15 storefront businesses across Florida claim to help thousands of customers each year place online orders from pharmacies in Canada and overseas for medications at prices up to 70% off what people pay in the United States. The reason is that other countries regulate consumer drug prices—the U.S. does not—and some cheaper generic medications are sold there before the U.S. market gets them.

Federal authorities say the practice is illegal and dangerous because the U.S. has not reviewed the safety of some drugs approved for sale in foreign countries, or the drugs could be counterfeit. But since the first storefront opened in 2002 in Delray Beach, Florida, the government has never charged shops or their customers, according to operators and researchers who follow the business.

Florida’s storefronts are found in retirement havens, including areas of Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando, Melbourne, and Miami. Similar operations exist in a few other states, but the Sunshine State is thought to have the most.

The average retail price for 397 widely used drugs increased 81% from 2006 through 2013, compared with an 18% increase due to inflation during the same period, according to the AARP. That climate drives the market for outlets like the ones in Florida. Savings of 60% to 70% are not uncommon, according to the storefront owners.

Approximately 2% of Americans, or 5 million people, buy drugs from foreign pharmacies, according to a federal survey conducted in 2011. The nonprofit Canadian International Pharmacy Association, which verifies the legitimacy and safe practices of online pharmacies outside the U.S. that sell to Americans and Canadians, estimates that its members’ 64 websites supply approximately one million U.S. customers a year.

Many consumers do their own online buying from foreign pharmacies. Canadian MedStore and other storefront operators target an older generation interested in buying medications abroad but who lack computer savvy and are insecure about buying online by themselves.

Unlike pharmacies, storefront operations don’t stock medications. Instead, a few employees who work on computers in sparsely furnished offices assist customers in online ordering. Only chronic medications may be obtained with the storefronts’ help. Delivery usually takes two or three weeks.

Consumers pay the foreign pharmacies in full by check or credit card, since no insurance is involved, and the U.S. storefronts collect fees from the pharmacies.

Source: Kaiser Health News; June 6, 2016.