America’s favorite illegal Canadian import? Prescription drugs

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DENVER -- The cost of gas may be falling but the cost of prescription drugs continues to skyrocket. The solution for many Americans like Pat Castronova, lies just north of the border in Canada.

“I just  don’t like being taken advantage of,” said the Denver retiree. Castronova considers herself a savvy consumer who buys premarin, an estrogen replacement drug, from the website “Canadadrugs.com.” She said the drug is a lot cheaper in Canada than in America. "Canada is with the shipping about $160,  whereas here (U.S.)  it would be $400-500,” said Castronova.

In fact, without insurance the cost is even higher, even if a shopper uses coupons. According to the website “Goodrx.com” a 336 tablet supply of Premarin is more than $1,200 at most  Denver area drugs stores, including Walmart, King Soopers, Kmart, Safeway, Rite-Aid and Walgreens.

“People are always looking to save money,” said Peter Rice, a professor at the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy.

Rice said Canadian drugs are cheaper but there’s no way to guarantee their safety to consumers. “They`re going on the website to a pharmacy that says it`s a Canadian pharmacy and says that it`s approved and says the medicines are safe. They`re buying it over the internet and there`s no guarantee that`s even a real pharmacy.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly stated that Americans who import medication from Canada are breaking the law and taking a health risk since the drugs don’t meet FDA  approval. The agency’s website states, “Drugs coming to the United States from Canada may be coming from some other country and simply passing through Canada. The drugs could also be counterfeit, contaminated, or subpotent."

But that warning hasn’t deterred consumers like Denver’s Greg Stant. "I haven`t had my left leg grow up three inches shorter yet,” said the 56-year-old computer programmer.

Greg Stant said he’s bought Nemanda from Canada for years. "I don`t get to first base without this. It`s a drug that was created for people with early onset Alzheimer`s.”  Stant said it’s helped his memory and his pocketbook. He buys 196 tablets for $106, a third of what it would cost him at a Denver area pharmacy.

As for FDA warnings, Stant complained, “It just seems like they`re protecting drug companies rather than the American public. "

The reason most countries like Canada generally pay less for prescription drugs is because the government sets a price cap or negotiates lower prices with drug makers. In America, pharmaceutical companies determine the price and they often cite high research and development costs for rising prices.

“You can’t afford to get sick,” said Lee Graczyk, executive director for the nonprofit Rxrights.org. His group is asking Congress to legalize the importation of Canadian medications, something the state of Maine did in 2013.

“It may indeed force or get the attention of Congress in terms of doing something at the national level ,” said Graczyk.

In early January, Senators John McCain of Arizona and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota introduced legislation to legalize what 5 million Americans already do.

One survey found 2 percent of American adults buy their medications from Canadian pharmacies but Graczyk says even more Americans simply go without. “A study in 2012 by the Commonwealth Fund basically said that 51 million Americans did not fill their prescription due to costs in 2012.”

When it comes to prescription drug prices, Graczyk said American consumers are subsidizing the rest of the world. Since the FDA typically doesn’t go after Americans who import their drugs from Canada, both Pat Castronova and Greg Stant insist they’ll keep doing it. “Let’s face it, this is about money,” said Stant.

He said he’s less worried about the health risk of using Canadian drugs than he is of being able to afford his medications in America.

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