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Grassley asks why not buy medicine online or go to Mexico

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who introduced the Safe and Affordable Drugs from Canada Act of 2019, may well emerge as a major champion for Americans who import medicine because the prices are too high here in the U.S.

An astounding thing happened during the Senate Finance Committee hearing on drug prices this past Tuesday. Committee Chairman Grassley asked one of the witnesses, a mother struggling with the cost of insulin for her young adult son, if she had considered importing medicine to afford it.

Think about that.

Under most circumstances, according to the FDA, it’s illegal to import medicine for personal use. And yet at a high-profile Senate committee hearing, the venerable Sen. Grassley seemed genuinely curious why Ms. Sego didn’t get lower-cost medication online from another country.

Ms. Sego’s son started rationing his insulin to help his family with high costs

A little background. The cost of insulin tripled from 2002-2013, according to the American Diabetes Association. Research from the Health Care Cost Institute shows insulin costs doubled between 2012-2016, from $2864-$5705 for people with type 1 diabetes.

Kathy Sego’s son, Hunter, has diabetes and therefore needs insulin to stay alive. Like many American families of people with diabetes, the Segos have been struggling with rising insulin costs. In her testimony, we learn that when Hunter went to pick up his own insulin, he saw the cost. It was devastating for him. He realized that his parents were struggling financially to deal with his need for insulin. So, he began to ration. As a result, he fell ill. Luckily, this came to light within his family in time, and he started back on his prescribed doses.

Other parents have not been so lucky – and young adults are dropping dead from the high cost of insulin.

Ms. Sego recounted that on a trip to Hungary, paid for by the family of an exchange student, they went to a local pharmacy to buy insulin:

“We went to the pharmacy for insulin. It cost $10. The same vial of insulin that cost us $487 out-of-pocket cost $10 in Hungary.”

After the witness testimony, Senator Grassley asked a crucial question:

“We hear so much about people going to Mexico or ordering drugs online. Have you considered Mexico or online?”

Ms. Sego responded:

“Yes, but we can’t afford to travel to Mexico or to Canada, or even back to Hungary.”

Senator Grassley knows that traveling abroad is not the only way to get the lower drug prices in other countries

Senator Grassley knows very well that people successfully import medicine to save money or obtain life-saving drugs they otherwise could not afford. And many do so by ordering their medication from online pharmacies.

In 2017, he and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to voice their concerns about reported FDA criminal investigations against “pharmacy storefronts” that help people purchase medicines from Canada and other countries. The senators communicated that the actions appeared to represent a scale back of the agency’s “non-enforcement policy” that currently allows for limited importation of prescription drugs.

Sens. Grassley and Klobuchar have reason to worry. The FDA was further empowered last year under the SUPPORT Act to stop dangerous imports of fentanyl and other addictive drugs. However, the same funding under the that law could be misused to refuse and destroy people’s prescription orders coming in at international mail facilities.

Buying cheaper insulin from Canadian pharmacies

To come full circle, insulin costs are much lower in Canada. However, unlike pills, asthma inhalers, creams, and other drug forms, insulin requires special packaging and handling for shipping. So, it’s not as simple as shipping most prescription drugs. Also, it’s not as cheap in Canada as it is in Hungary – but it’s still much cheaper than from American pharmacies.

Let’s look at Lantus, a long acting insulin. One vial of 10ml at my local Walgreens in Brooklyn is $327. I just called a Rexall Drugs in Montreal. Their price is $73.99 and they don’t even require a prescription.

Restrictions on Shipping Lower-cost Insulin from Canadian Pharmacies

Insulin that is packaged properly can be shipped overnight by FedEx safely. Unfortunately, as I understand it, FedEx might not deliver it because the FDA has told the company it should not do so.

PharmacyChecker has an exceedingly strict shipping policy for Canadian pharmacies we verify that choose to market and sell insulin online for shipping to the U.S. At this time, there are no Canadian pharmacies in our program doing so. To understand why our policy is so strict and more on the potential to get lower-cost insulin from Canada, see PharmacyChecker Policy on Buying Insulin from Canada is Stricter than U.S. Safety Standards.

Lastly, there was a second surprise comment during this hearing. This time from from Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY). He mentioned that his “diabetes advisor” has a son with diabetes:

“He found a way to work through a foundation to import insulin for a number of people at lower-cost. And I think he worked for a foundation so that it would be legal.”

You can bet we’ll be following up on that.

More importantly, Sen. Grassley’s hearing brought to light the lifeline that is personal drug importation. We hope to hear more from him on this issue.  

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