Should You Buy Your Meds Through Online Pharmacies? Weigh the Pros and Cons

If you think political debate is contentious, try listening to physicians, pharmacists and patient advocacy groups discuss overseas pharmacies.

As a long-time managing editor of medical publications – and a medical center spokesperson prior to that – I can almost guarantee that eavesdropping on such conversations will have you yearning for the seemingly reasoned civility of campaign advertisements.

Suffice to say that, like many politicians, physicians, pharmacists and patient advocates see no room for nuanced conversation. Most pharmacists, physicians and other U.S. health care professionals contend that ordering such medications is plain wrong. It’s illegal and unsafe.

Many patient advocates – and a few outspoken health care professionals – say that if due diligence about the pharmacy is conducted, the medications are safe and significantly less expensive than those sold in the United States, thus affording patients ways to maintain and improve health without bankrupting themselves.

Here are some of the pros and cons so you can make a sound decision:

Common practice

A recent Consumer Reports’ survey found that 60 percent of those surveyed wanted to cut health care costs. Many of those respondents said one way they make ends meet is to buy medications online from pharmacies outside the United States. Based on the survey, Consumer Reports estimated that 1.9 million Americans buy medications this way. International Business Times recently estimated more than 5 million Americans buy from overseas pharmacies. Although common, CR recommends against this practice, warning that some online vendors are rogue operations that sell counterfeit, substandard or even toxic versions of drugs. It recommends consumers pursue other ways to save on medical costs.

Savings

The differences in drug costs, however, are significant.

“Drug prices in the U.S. are shrouded in mystery, obscured by confidential rebates, multiple middlemen and the strict guarding of trade secrets,” as a Wall Street Journal report put it. One reason American pay high prices for prescription medications is that the United States market funds much of the global drug industry’s research and its efforts to develop new medicines.

An analysis by the newspaper comparing drugs sold in the United States and Norway found that U.S. prices were higher for 93 percent of 40 top branded drugs. Similar patterns appeared when U.S. prices were compared with those in England and Canada’s Ontario province. Throughout the developed world, branded prescription drugs are generally cheaper than in the United States, the newspaper concluded.

A real world example: Suzan Roll, a retired interior designer who lives in Palm City, Florida, told International Business Times that she has ordered expensive medications online for more than seven years. One savings example: she purchased an estrogen ring that would have cost her $240 through Medicare for only $79 on a website. When her son needed Lexapro, an antidepressant, she bought it for around $40 online instead of paying $125 at a local pharmacy.

“It was very convenient, and it saved us money,” she said.

Legality and enforcement

Importing drugs from overseas is illegal, so this has implications if you rely on online pharmacies that are outside the United States.

Officials at the Food and Drug Administration told the New York Times that the agency “typically does not object” to people buying imported medicine for personal use “under certain circumstances.” The circumstances include purchasing less than a three-month supply of drugs that are not available in the United States for treatment of serious conditions.

Although the FDA rarely prosecutes individuals importing medications for their personal use, the government does crack down on overseas pharmacies. Recently U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized such packages to “protect the consumer from harm,” reported Medscape.

If your order is seized in such a crackdown, you may never receive the medication or the money you paid.

In the recent raid, federal customs agents seized 50,000 packages spanning 115 countries — the largest crackdown to date on those selling prescription medicines online, according to International Business Times. In addition, 1,050 online pharmacies in 115 countries were raided or warned, 2,414 websites selling prescription drugs were shut down, and about 550 online advertisements were removed in the international crackdown.

The FDA also sent warning letters to the operators of 400 online pharmacies that sell unapproved or mislabeled medicines or medical devices and seized 814 parcels containing antidepressants, hormone replacement therapies and drugs to treat high cholesterol and erectile dysfunction at international mailrooms in New York, Chicago and Miami.

Safety

On the critical issue of safety, it is not as black and white as the U.S. government might suggest, according to Gabriel Levitt, vice president of PharmacyChecker.com — a company that helps Americans find the drugs they need through lower-cost pharmacies, many of which are in Canada and other foreign countries.

Levitt took special exception to a statement from Howard R. Sklamberg, a deputy commissioner at the FDA, who said that foreign unapproved drugs posed the same health risks as counterfeit drugs. (You can see Sklamberg’s testimony about counterfeit and unapproved medication before Congress on the subject here.)

“That assertion is just not true and will scare lawmakers and consumers into believing that all imported drugs bought online are dangerous. He spells out this distinction in his blog.

When FDA talks about “foreign unapproved drugs,” it often means real medication available in foreign pharmacies. That medication is either exactly the same as the medication sold here or a foreign version with the same active ingredients as medication sold here. When FDA talks about “counterfeit drugs,” they generally mean fake medication: products sold by criminals that fool people into believing that they were manufactured legally.

Want more assurance? According to a report by NPR, researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research ordered samples of drugs commonly used by Americans — including Viagra, Celebrex, Lipitor, Nexium and Zoloft — from 41 online pharmacies based in the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe or Asia. The researchers selected the pharmacies through online searches, just as consumers do.

The results: The 328 medication samples they tested that were obtained from any type of certified pharmacy were found to be legitimate. Those that were certified by PharmacyChecker and the Canadian International Pharmacy Association were half as expensive as the drugs ordered from U.S.-based outlets.

It is an inconvenient truth,” PharmacyChecker.com’s Levitt told The Hill newspaper, “but millions of Americans will find their lifeline of affordable and safe medication gone if there is a broad-based, ill-considered crackdown against foreign online pharmacies.”

What is your feeling about buying prescriptions from overseas pharmacies? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
2 Costly Rewards Credit Card Mistakes — and How to Fix Them
2 Costly Rewards Credit Card Mistakes — and How to Fix Them

If you commit either of these credit card sins, you are likely losing money every time you use a card. Here’s how to easily right this wrong.

5 Ways Anyone Can Save on Out-of-Pocket Health Care Costs
5 Ways Anyone Can Save on Out-of-Pocket Health Care Costs

Here’s how to lower your health care costs without skimping on care.

6 Types of People Who Can’t Count on Social Security
6 Types of People Who Can’t Count on Social Security

If you fall into one of these groups, don’t assume that you will receive benefits.

This Type of Social Security Benefit Is Often Overlooked
This Type of Social Security Benefit Is Often Overlooked

The Social Security Administration is not helping certain people get money to which they are entitled, a report says.

The 2 Biggest Retirement Fears of Baby Boomers
The 2 Biggest Retirement Fears of Baby Boomers

Boomers have a lot of worries as they age, but two stand out.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

11 Things Retirees Should Always Buy at Costco
11 Things Retirees Should Always Buy at Costco

This leader in bulk shopping is a great place to find discounts in the fixed-income years.

Over 50? The CDC Says You Need These 4 Vaccines
Over 50? The CDC Says You Need These 4 Vaccines

Fall is the time to schedule vaccines that can keep you healthy — and even save your life.

Why Cloth Masks May Increase Your Coronavirus Risk
Why Cloth Masks May Increase Your Coronavirus Risk

A new study finds that wearing a cloth mask can backfire if you don’t clean it properly.

11 Household Items That Go Bad — or Become Dangerous
11 Household Items That Go Bad — or Become Dangerous

When you get the impulse to stockpile these everyday items, pay close attention to their expiration dates.

8 Things You Can Get for Free at Pharmacies
8 Things You Can Get for Free at Pharmacies

In this age of higher-priced drugs and complex health care systems, a trip to the pharmacy can spark worry. Freebies sure do help.

7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast
7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast

Your financial security might soon depend upon the strength of your credit score.

These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020
These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020

Medicare Advantage customers themselves rate these plans highest.

The 15 Worst States for Retirees in 2020
The 15 Worst States for Retirees in 2020

Based on dozens of metrics tied to affordability, quality of life and health care, these are not ideal places to spend retirement.

The 10 Most Commonly Stolen Vehicles in America
The 10 Most Commonly Stolen Vehicles in America

A new model parks atop the list of vehicles that thieves love to pilfer.

This Is the Cheapest Place to Buy a Used Car
This Is the Cheapest Place to Buy a Used Car

Looking for a good deal on a set of wheels? This should be your first stop.

19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree
19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree

These jobs pay more than the typical job in the U.S. — and no bachelor’s degree is required.

5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free
5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free

Hesitant to drop $119 a year on an Amazon Prime membership? Here’s how to get it for free.

5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles
5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles

Pushing your car to 200,000 miles — and beyond — can save you piles of cash. Here’s how to get there.

26 States That Do Not Tax Social Security Income
26 States That Do Not Tax Social Security Income

These states won’t tax any of your Social Security income — and in some cases, other types of retirement income.

10 Reasons Why You Should Actually Retire at 62
10 Reasons Why You Should Actually Retire at 62

If you can, here are several good reasons to retire earlier than we’re told to.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

7 Surprising Features That Boost Your Home Value
7 Surprising Features That Boost Your Home Value

You can add value to your home without hiring a contractor to do expensive renovations.

5 Things That Make Life More Meaningful for Retirees
5 Things That Make Life More Meaningful for Retirees

Retirees agree: These are the things that give them purpose and fulfillment in their golden years.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.