The federal government plans to halt a controversial crackdown on discount drugs mailed from Canadian pharmacies to U.S. customers, removing a significant hurdle to Americans buying cheaper medications from abroad.
Earlier this week, customs officials sent an e-mail to some members of Congress that it would abandon the seizure policy next Monday.
Instead of the broad effort, the e-mail said the agency would sample and test mail-order medications for counterfeits and ineffective ingredients on “randomly generated days throughout the fiscal year.”
The reversal by the Department of Homeland Security, which operates U.S. Customs and Border Protection, could eliminate much of the fears from senior citizens and other consumers that drugs purchased from Canadian mail-order houses would be confiscated.
Those drugs, including the popular medications Lipitor and Fosamax, can be 30 percent to 80 percent cheaper from Canada and other countries, surveys have shown. But the U.S. government was confiscating as much as 20 percent of them earlier this year at the height of the crackdown.
The move reverses a policy that began last November around the time enrollment opened for the Medicare drug plan. The Canadian shipments had been confiscated out of concerns about safety, but consumer advocates and others argued that the crackdown was an effort to limit competition in the pharmaceutical market and force seniors on fixed incomes to sign up for new Medicare plans and pay higher prices for drugs from U.S. pharmacies.
The change comes as millions of seniors on Medicare drug plans were expected to hit the “doughnut hole,” the gap in coverage created by Medicare law that requires enrollees to pay the full cost of medicines after their total annual drug spending exceeds $2,250. Coverage kicks in again only if annual drug expenses hit $5,100.
As a result, many low-income seniors were considering going without needed medications through the end of the year, advocates said.
Although it is illegal for individuals to import pharmaceuticals to take advantage of price differences, the Food and Drug Administration historically had turned a blind eye to personal purchases of non-narcotic prescription drugs from Canada and Mexico in shipments of as much as three months’ worth.
That changed Nov. 17 when customs got involved and began a quiet crackdown on foreign mail-order drugs. By some estimates, more than 40,000 packages were interdicted. Canadian mail-order pharmacies said seizures jumped from between 3 percent and 5 percent of their U.S. shipments to a peak earlier this year of more than 20 percent.