Dr. John Molina is accustomed to fighting to get health coverage for poor Hispanics who come to his Guadalupe clinic. But the state Board of Pharmacy’s threat to take him to court for telling patients about Canadian pharmacy bargains took him by surprise.
Molina recently came under the board’s scrutiny after he offered office space to a Scottsdale-based company that brokers prescriptions through Canada.
“I just felt we were doing something for people that the government has failed to do,” Molina said. “I deal with so many uninsured patients. I thought this would be a great way for them to get low-cost prescriptions from Canada.”
The state pharmacy board thought otherwise, notifying Molina soon after the Prescription Drugs Canada office opened last month that he was violating state law prohibiting anyone but a pharmacy or a pharmacist from advertising or selling drugs.
It’s the latest action in the board’s campaign to discourage consumers from buying drugs from Canadian and other foreign pharmacies. In February, the board sent letters to several prescription-brokering companies threatening them with legal action if they didn’t close down.
“Anyone who does it knows it’s illegal. It’s against the law, period,” said Hal Wand, executive director of the state board.
Molina, however, said the board is going too far, interfering with his ability to practice medicine and do what is best for his patients. And though he doesn’t believe he’s breaking the law, Molina hopes the matter winds up in court so the issues can be clarified.
Wand said consumers risk their health and safety unless they buy from licensed U.S. pharmacies. Reimportation of drugs without U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval also violates federal law, he said.
The federal government has largely ignored the practice, however, as Internet companies and local brokers spring up around the country, saving consumers as much as 75 percent over American pharmacy prices.
Both the U.S. House and Senate approved drug reimportation bills last month as part of sweeping Medicare legislation. A conference committee, which includes Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., will meet in September to work on a compromise.
Companies such as Prescription Drugs Canada can’t be regulated by state pharmacy or federal drug laws because they don’t handle prescriptions or drugs, said co-founder Joel Korsunsky. The company has locations in Scottsdale and Sun City, as well as the bilingual office in Guadalupe, which draws patients from Ahwatukee Foothills.
“Let’s not threaten people and scare them,” said Korsunsky, who said he has facilitated the shipment of 35,000 prescriptions to 8,500 customers since January 2002. “We’re not talking about Third World countries. We’re talking about Canada.”
Although there have been no local complaints about Canadian pharmacies, Wand acknowledged, customers can’t be sure their prescriptions are being filled in Canada since there is no U.S. oversight.
That hasn’t stopped millions of patients, mostly senior citizens, from buying their prescriptions through foreign pharmacies. In the East Valley, consumers are hearing about Canadian druggists through presentations at mobile home parks and trade shows, from their doctors and at local senior centers.
The Mesa Senior Center has designated a staff member to help people get free or reduced prescriptions, whether it’s with one-time vouchers, through drug company programs for low-income patients, or through Canadian pharmacies.
Eleen and Larry Carr of Mesa heard about Korsunsky’s company from their doctor at Mayo Clinic Scottsdale. The couple were paying $4,000 a year at Walgreens for six different prescriptions, and now pay less than $2,000 a year for the same medication, Larry Carr said.
“I don’t understand what the big deal is about,” he said. “Except that there are some powerful pharmaceutical companies in America that really do not want this to happen. They’re in it for the money.”
The seven-member pharmacy board includes five pharmacists, but Wand said its motivation is consumer safety not market protection. Complaints against Molina, Korsunsky and other mail-order prescription companies have been turned over to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.
Montgomery Lee, chief counsel for the office’s licensing and enforcement division, said attorneys are working with the pharmacy board on possible administrative or civil actions. Criminal and consumer fraud laws also could apply.
Molina said many of his patients go without their prescriptions because they can’t afford them, or try to make them last longer by taking lower dosages. Roughly 40 percent of his patients are diabetics.
“I think it’s unethical that we as doctors find it so easy to give a prescription and not worry if our patient is going to fill it,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s just a lost cause.”