The Straight Dope on Buying Pharmaceuticals Abroad

Posted on 24 August 2014 by Josef Woodman

Patients can save big when buying drugs online or abroad, if some cautions are heeded.


Standing in line recently at my local Rite-Aid pharmacy, I was not particularly surprised to see two elderly customers in front of me pay nearly $600 each in co-pays and out-of-pocket for what turned out to be the price of their monthly prescriptions. I sensed from their haggard demeanor that $7,200 a year was not chump change for these two individuals. This experience led me to conduct some research on purchasing mail-order prescription drugs abroad. Our editorial folks uncovered the following:

While it's technically illegal to bring drugs into the country (even cough syrup!), enforcement of cross-border and online drug sales is like a leash law, where in most cases customs officials turn a blind eye. Ordering pharmaceuticals from online pharmacies is legal when you follow the rules. Dozens of legitimate, registered mail-order pharmacies around the world offer just about every type of imaginable pharmaceutical. Except for controlled substances with brand names like Adderall, Oxycontin, Valium, and Xanax, prescriptions are available for brand name manufacturers as well as generics.

I decided to give it a try with a prescription for a brand-manufactured Wellbutrin XL. The recommended dose would set an American consumer back around $8,000-16,000 annually, depending upon the recommended dosage.

Long story short, it took me nearly three months to wade through a swamp of fly-by-nights, rogue pharmacies, poor customer service, non-shipments and other false starts before finally meeting with success through a Winnipeg-based online pharmacy (Canada Drugs). Several weeks later the shipment arrived, along with an invoice, name of physician, company fulfilling the prescription and a receipt. The pills were the brand name, not the generic, packaged in a bottle that had been prepared as I would have expected from my local pharmacy. The bottom line: a satisfying savings of nearly 80% over US costs.

The downsides:

  • A first-time customer must traverse a long litany of one-time registration forms and other bureaucratic annoyances in order to become eligible to have a prescription filled. While this is understandable given the potential for misuse, patient safety and privacy considerations, some consumers may not wish to undergo the hassles.
  • Your health plan (if you're lucky enough to have one these days) may not cover your prescription. Online pharmacies will not advise you about insurance coverage and some insurers to do not authorize claims for prescriptions purchased outside the country. Either call your insurer prior to placing your order, or submit your claim upon receipt of your invoice from the online pharmacy.
  • Expect long ship times (around 30 days), with no package tracking. If your prescription must be maintained, be sure you have enough on hand to cover the wait.

Some cautions:

  • If you live in the US, use Canadian-based online pharmacies; avoid those based in Mexico or Turkey. Canadian mail is faster and trackable.
  • Ask from which country your order is being shipped (one of my false starts was an order that stalled forever in the Turkish mail system).
  • If you're not ordering a generic, ask your online pharmacy which firm manufactures your prescription, then check online to verify it's an original manufacturer.
  • Check to see if the pharmacy is registered in its country as an authorized vendor. Pharmacy Checker is the oldest and largest independent surveyor of online pharmacies.
  • Calculate your savings against the hassles of ordering online; discounts are deeper on some drugs than others. A $20 net savings may not be worth the trouble.

Until some of the statutory mandates of Obamacare kick in, pharmaceutical prices will continue to remain artificially high—bad news for those of us with high deductibles, high co-pays or just plain uninsured. If you're willing to do some additional work, the long-term gains can be rewarding for you and those around you. It's also fun to beat the system every now and then.


Read other articles about:

United States, Healthcare Costs, Insurance

Last updated on 25 August 2014

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