By Bob LaMendola | South Florida Sun-Sentinel Health Writer
October 4th, 2006
In a move that cheered buyers of Canadian drugs, U.S. customs officials told members of Congress they will no longer seize prescription drugs that individuals import illegally from other countries.
The new policy, disclosed Tuesday by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., ends a controversial practice begun last fall in which the government confiscated or delayed about 40,000 individual medication packages at postal facilities for international mail, including one in Miami serving South Florida.
U.S. law forbids importing drugs from other countries, but the government had looked the other way for years. Then on Nov. 17, agents began intercepting drugs from Canada.
Budget-conscious seniors, who can save half or more on drug prices by buying from outside the country, protested loudly.
Customs officials told members of Congress in an e-mail that as of Monday, agents would no longer handle illegal shipments but would instead pass on information to the Food and Drug Administration.
A customs spokeswoman told the Orlando Sentinel that the Bush administration still believes drugs from outside the country pose a higher risk of being counterfeit or adulterated, and about 10 percent of those seized overall have proven to be.
The new policy is an internal change, spokeswoman Lynn Hollinger said.
"We just decided to focus our resources differently. We are still very committed to protecting the American public from these medications," Hollinger said.
South Florida pill buyers said they were relieved the government changed course.
"That's great news," said Diane Cohen, an office manager from Boca Raton, who had a shipment of the breast-cancer drug Tamoxifen from Canada seized in February.
"We were being denied the right to purchase medication at a price we can afford."
An estimated 1.8 million Americans save money by buying drugs from other countries, especially Canada, which sets price limits as part of its national health system.
The customs drug seizures began Nov. 17, two days after the start of enrollment for Medicare's new prescription drug program.
Federal officials said the two were not related, but Democrats in Congress and many seniors suspected the effort aimed to scare them into signing up for coverage.
Nelson and other lawmakers pushed legislation that would halt the enforcement, but it became snarled in election-year debate.
During the summer, Republican leaders in Congress struck a compromise, saying customs agents would stop seizing drugs that individuals carried back from Canada, but did not address mail-order shipments.
The language was written into a budget bill that the House and Senate passed last month.
Nelson said he believed the new policy on mailed drugs, coming a month before election day, was a response to pressure from him and others.
Charlotte Kammer, owner of CanAm RX Discount Drugs in Sunrise, said the seizures seemed to peak in February, then slowed.
Even so, she said a number of storefronts closed this year, partly because of the seizures and partly because seniors switched to the Medicare drug plan.
"Some people got scared and stopped ordering. About 5 percent, I'd say," Kammer said.
"Now there's no problem. That's the best news I've heard in a long time."
A consumer group that sponsored drug-buying train trips to Canada said the new policy falls short and called on the Bush administration to control drug prices, as Canada does.
"The U.S. should be importing Canadian drug policy, not Canadian drugs, so seniors don't have to cross the border or rely on fly-by-night Internet pharmacies to buy their prescription drugs," said Jerry Flanagan of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.