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Drug Reimportation: A Matter of Faith

Legislation to permit drug reimportation has resurfaced and the Senate may vote on it within the next 4 to 6 weeks. It may be considered as an amendment to the health reform legislation or come up as a free-standing bill. At stake is whether Americans can have access to drugs being sold in overseas markets at heavily discounted prices.

Advocates point to the unfairness of Americans paying more for the same drugs, which are often manufactured in the same overseas plants and use the same suppliers as pharmaceuticals being shipped into the US. If reimportation is permitted, they envision large savings for government programs, health plans and individual patients. They also believe that safety can be assured by limiting reimportation to countries with US-level regulatory and safety controls, such as Canada.

Opponents focus on the strict controls placed on drugs being manufactured for the American market and imported by US-regulated drug companies and wholesalers. While the world is awash in billions of dollars of counterfeit drugs, comparatively little enters the US under the current system. If counterfeits become more common, there is likely to be a significant increase in costly, sometimes deadly, therapeutic failures. This would jeopardize public health and wipe out much of the predicted savings.

Ideological positions have hardened on drug reimportation. There is far more shouting, far fewer efforts to reason and educate. How do we, as patients and consumers in a complex society, decide on the best path for Americans?

Years ago, a drug trade association ran a campaign with the seemingly-paradoxical theme: the only pill we don’t test is the one you take yourself. The goal, as I recollect, was better public understanding of how testing and quality controls permeate every stage of drug development and manufacturing.

Because the actual pill can’t be tested, the campaign made me realize that there is a critical leap of faith that the drug product you take is identical to the one that was originally shown to be safe and effective. This is not just a matter of chemical sameness, but also dissolution rates, absorption rates, purity, side effect profile, consistent safety and effectiveness across populations, etc.

I have the highest degree of confidence that a branded product is the same as the one that was originally tested and approved. I have nearly the same confidence in generics and regularly use them, although I have had at least one bad experience.

Beyond that, I become very concerned about drugs reimported from overseas. Among the potential problems: ingredient substitution, inconsistent manufacturing, lack of quality controls, inadequate inspections, lack of corporate accountability, and the absence of a strict chain of custody that prevents counterfeits.

This risk is compounded because consumers, pharmacists and doctors might never know whether a therapeutic failure was a result of an individual’s biology or because of an inferior copy or counterfeiting. At least with brand and generic drugs, the pharmacy puts the drug’s name and manufacturer on the label of the bottle and we can reasonably assume the accuracy of the information.

I have no faith that reimported drugs will, on a consistent basis, be identical to the original products in quality, safety and efficacy.

In most circumstances, potentially inferior goods sell at a steep discount to cover the consumer’s risk of product failure. In health care, this is not considered acceptable. The promised price discounts from reimported drugs don’t justify the risk to my health from a therapeutic failure.


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