Thursday, February 24, 2005

Tucked away under a green sign in a small Wheaton shopping center, Value Rx of Canada LLC orders cheap prescription drugs from Canada for walk-in customers.

The storefront pharmacy-processing center helps mainly senior citizens buy up to 3,000 types of prescription drugs from Canada that are less expensive than those in the United States.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates U.S. prescription drugs, is trying to shut down processing centers like Value Rx, saying they violate federal law.

Dennis C. Parker, who owns the shop and knows most customers on a first-name basis, opened the center in January 2004 as a temporary solution to skyrocketing drug prices.

“I am a compassionate young senior and doing everything I can to help my fellow seniors,” he said on a recent morning at the small office, a large Canadian flag draped behind his desk.

The store is one of a few in the mid-Atlantic region and appears to be the only one in Montgomery County, although county officials would not confirm if there are other processing centers.

Still, Mr. Parker said the business “is not the answer” to providing senior citizens affordable prescription drugs long term.

U.S. consumers — primarily senior citizens — are increasingly turning to Canadian prescription-drug re-importation as a way to buy cheaper medicine, despite efforts in the United States and Canada to stop the drugs from coming into the United States.

Mr. Parker orders the medications for his more than 1,800 customers from a Toronto pharmacy company, Rx of Canada Inc.

Consumers generally save 50 percent to 60 percent per prescription, resulting in savings of $73 to $600. Each order is for a three-month supply with a processing and shipping charge of $15 per order.

Mr. Parker said he has had up to 16 prescriptions for one order.

He started the business after paying $900 for a three-month supply of eight prescriptions for his 84-year-old mother, Verna, who had suffered a heart attack. Mrs. Parker is now up to nine prescriptions, for which Mr. Parker pays about $300 total for a three-month supply.

“I thought, there is no way any senior citizen is able to afford this,” said the 60-year-old Silver Spring resident.

He went to Canada to shop around for a pharmacy that would ship FDA-approved prescription drugs to the United States.

One reason he chose Wheaton was to be near the 9,000-resident senior community Leisure World of Maryland.

Value Rx is on track to be profitable by 2006, Mr. Parker said. He would not give any financial results for 2004, saying his accounting firm has not reported results to him.

He admits his business is “in the gray area” of the law.

Even though he does not act as an unlicensed doctor or pharmacist, he is assisting customers in buying foreign prescription drugs.

“We are strictly a processing center. We don’t even do the transactions here; that is done by the pharmacy in Canada,” he said.

But the FDA views these processing centers differently, said Associate Commissioner William Hubbard. “We have never seen one that is really legal, because they are selling drugs from Canada that are not approved,” he said.

Mr. Hubbard said he was not aware of Value Rx but would look into the company.

“Generally, the state [governments] have attempted to go first, and we have followed their lead,” he said, noting the agency’s resources are stretched thin trying to enforce regulation on processing centers that are popping up around the country.

Kevin Enright, a spokesman for Maryland’s Attorney General’s Office, said he had not heard of Value Rx, and could not confirm or deny if the agency is investigating the business.

The FDA has helped shut down some centers like Value Rx because they could not guarantee the drugs sold to customers were safe or approved by the agency.

In November 2003, a federal judge in Oklahoma granted the agency’s request to close Rx Depot, a mail-order pharmacy services company that had offices in several states.

“We have never had a problem with the drugs being tampered with,” said Mr. Parker, who requires his customers to sign a waiver to prevent being held legally liable for the drugs he orders.

The FDA allows citizens to travel abroad to get prescriptions and bring back up to a 90-day supply of medications. But virtually all the drugs imported for personal use from Canada violate federal law because they are not approved, Mr. Hubbard said.

In the past, the FDA has not cracked down on drug re-importation, with many state and local governments defying the agency by creating programs to import medications from Canada.

Montgomery County, home of FDA headquarters in Rockville, in the fall approved a program to allow 85,000 employees, retirees and their dependents to buy prescription drugs from Canada.

Mr. Parker said he submitted a bid proposal this week to Rx of Canada, but he is not certain the pharmacy is interested in participating in the county program.

Value Rx could close if Canada passes a law requiring its doctors to examine foreign patients before signing off on prescriptions from foreign doctors.

It is not illegal for Canadian physicians to sign prescriptions for foreign patients they have not treated. But most of Canada’s 10 provinces and two of its territories have adopted professional standards through their regulatory boards that discourage doctors from signing prescriptions without meeting and fully examining patients.

Canadian Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh is pushing Parliament to pass legislation that would restrict prescription procedures for foreign patients.

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