Drug Importation 101

You may have heard the phrase “drug importation” as part of the ongoing debate over the cost of health care. On its surface, drug importation legislation may seem like an effective solution. The reality is, drug importation could be downright dangerous and will offer negligible savings, at best.

Here's a quick look at what you need to know about drug importation:

What is drug importation?
Drug importation refers to the process of importing prescription drugs that are sourced, manufactured and sold in foreign countries into the United States. People can buy imported drugs in brick-and-mortar pharmacies and online.

What’s wrong with drug importation?
First and foremost: imported drugs are not inspected for safety and efficacy as they are in the United States. Here, we’re lucky enough to have the global gold standard drug approval process carried out by the FDA. Imported drugs don’t go through this same rigorous process as the FDA, and are often sold through dangerous, unregulated, illegitimate online pharmacies. The FDA attests it cannot guarantee the safety of imported medicines from foreign countries, presenting a significant risk to public health.

What do I need to know about online pharmacies?
When you buy a medicine online, it’s impossible to know if the online pharmacy is legitimate and if the medication is safe and effective. In 2014, a survey conducted by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy found that 96 percent of international pharmacies were “operating out of compliance with U.S. laws and standards.” Not only that, but counterfeiters’ technology improves daily, posing significant safety risks to patients. Counterfeit drugs purchased online and overseas may include harmful contaminants—from paint thinner to rat poison— instead of active ingredients.

What about the savings?
According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) the U.S. would experience a decrease of less than 2 percent of drug spending by opening our borders. Similarly, the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office determined that importation would reduce drug spending by “roughly 1 percent.”

Every stakeholder in the health system needs to continue to work together to address some key concerns, but this cannot happen at the expense of patient safety. Drug importation won’t give us the systemic savings we need, and it could jeopardize the health of millions of Americans – and that’s not a solution we’re willing to accept.