Joel Korsunsky is not afraid of state regulators who tried to shut down his Canadian prescription drug business in Scottsdale. He’s opening another one in Mesa.
On Sunday, Prescription Drugs Canada will celebrate the grand opening of its store at 7141 E. Main St. But unlike traditional businesses, it’s unclear whether Korsunsky’s is legal.
Such stores are at the center of a struggle between regulators in the United States and companies that have seized on popular demand for cheaper drugs from Canadian pharmacies.
Called facilitators, many such stores are growing rapidly because they make it easy for customers to get medications from Canada, where the cost is often 30 percent less than in the United States.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said drug reimportation is illegal. The Arizona State Board of Pharmacy has responded with letters to about a dozen facilitators in the state, telling them they are operating as pharmacies without licenses because they offer prescription drugs for sale, a violation of state law.
One of those letters was sent last year to Prescription Drugs Canada in Scottsdale. Another one will probably be sent to the store in Mesa, said Hal Wand, executive director of the state pharmacy board.
“I think they should get another letter,” he said Friday. “It’s still against the law. Nothing has changed.”
Facilitators, however, say they do not operate as pharmacies because they do not physically handle prescription drugs.
“What we’re really doing is acting as a liaison,” said Korsunsky, who has helped customers receive more than 100,000 prescriptions from Canadian pharmacies.
The board’s crackdown on facilitators has involved only warning letters and forwarding information to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office for investigation. Although the board has the authority to seek injunctions to shut down the stores, Wand has said the action would be pointless because facilitators could easily set up shop elsewhere.
In the meantime, supporters of drug reimportation have failed so far in efforts to legitimize the process.
At the request of AARP, state Rep. Marian McClure, R-Tucson, introduced a House memorial that, if passed, would have sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, urging it to certify the safety of medications coming to the United States from Canada. The request was defeated Feb. 12 by the Committee on Federal Mandates and Property Rights.
An attempt to add drug reimportation to the Medicare prescription drug bill that passed last year also failed.
And on Friday, the U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination of Mark McClellan, who has opposed drug reimportation, as head of Medicare. McClellan and other critics say drug reimportation poses risks because the FDA cannot guarantee the safety of medications coming from other countries, even those manufactured in the United States.
Rita Harp, a retired nurse from Mesa, said her asthma medication — Advair — bought through Prescription Drugs Canada is the same drug prescribed by her doctor in the United States. “I think it's all a facade that they're saying the drugs aren't as good,” she said. Her Advair was $90 through a Canadian pharmacy, she said. She was quoted $150 for it at a U.S. one.
Supporters point to Canada’s regulatory system for prescription drugs, which is almost identical to the U.S. system, and the absence of any reported health problems related to drugs from Canada.