Overseas online pharmacies a vital safety valve for poor Americans

A major research article about US patients buying medicines online was published last week.

The authors analyzed 61,238 respondents’ data from a
national database representing 152.2 million US adults taking prescription
medications. Roughly 1.5 percent (2.3 million US individuals) bought online
from overseas for financial reasons. This probably underrepresents the total
amount bought from overseas because some will buy for non-financial reasons, such
as liking a particular brand which becomes unavailable in US. Furthermore,
although US authorities do not enforce the law for individuals buying a few
months’ supply of medicines from overseas for personal use, it is technically
illegal and as such some respondents may not answer truthfully. This is even
more likely for immigrants, who will have concerns about deportation for any
illegal act and who — the authors show — are more likely to buy from overseas
for cost reasons.

A pharmacist counts prescription drugs at the at the CentreTown Pharmacy in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Regardless of the actual number, there is no doubt that
buying from overseas is a useful safety valve for numerous poorer Americans.
Yet at the same time, the relatively few Americans doing it means that it is
unlikely to undermine US independent drug pricing, which is the prime concern
of US pharmaceutical interests.

One has to be aware of the dangers of buying online, with rogue outfits pretending to be legitimate pharmacies, but credentialed sites sell medicines just like you get at your local CVS. Unfortunately, some search engines — notably Bing —make it harder for impoverished Americans to avoid the dangerous sites and find the legitimate ones. I researched this two years ago and I’m sad to say that Bing has not changed its policy. It is driving poorer Americans who need cheaper medicines to the very sites most likely to ill serve them. 

As the JAMA study shows, buying overseas is an important option for sick and poor Americans, and they should be able to do so as safely as possible.