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Prescriptions from Canada: Are They Right for You? Posted: March 4th, 2010

By Megg Mueller

Megg Mueller is a journalist with almost two decades of experience. She has worked as a reporter and editor for the Reno Gazette-Journal, as editor of health care and education manuals and was an assistant travel editor for USATODAY.com.

Prescription drugs are a part of most Americans' lives, whether purchased personally or for a family member. Health insurance often covers part of prescription drug costs, but what if you don't have health insurance?

To cut costs, some people have turned to purchasing prescriptions from Canada. Purchasing medications from a Canadian pharmacy is legal.

The Obama Administration campaigned on a promise of allowing pharmacies to re-import lower-priced medications from Canada, but later the administration didn't back the measure, nor did it pass in the Senate. The bill would have let all Americans buy prescriptions from Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Many pharmaceutical lobbies are against the measure, saying the safety and regulation of such drugs would be unreliable, and the measure is still being debated in Congress.

Canadian Pharmacy Cost Comparisons

The price of prescription drugs in Canada can be anywhere from 25% to 80% lower than in the United States, which is especially helpful to those without health insurance. Unaffordable prescriptions are a growing problem. According to an article from the AARP, almost 30% of Americans "have not filled at least one prescription in the past two years because of the cost."

Below is a sample of prescription prices and the differences between a U.S. pharmacy and a Canadian pharmacy; all medications listed are for a 90-day supply:

  • Lipitor, 20 mg: US price = $398.37, Canadian pharmacy = $142.28
  • Nexium, 20 mg: US price = $475.60, Canadian pharmacy = $163.64
  • Celebrex, 100 mg: U.S. price = $236.95, Canadian pharmacy = $107.01

There are companies that facilitate Americans' puchases of drugs from Canada. Scott Reed is the owner of Canadian Pharmacy Services, a Canadian Pharmacy affiliate based in Nevada. Reed has been in business for five years and says saving money is the obvious advantage to using a service such as his.

"Most of my clients are uninsured, difficult to insure, or their health insurance doesn't cover the medication they need," Reed says.

How Purchasing Medication from Canada Works

A legal prescription and medical release are required; then a U.S-based company works with a state-approved Canadian pharmacy, which has a doctor rewrite the prescription and then fulfills the order.

Reed's company guarantees the product and your purchase. Occasionally orders, which must clear both countries' customs, can get lost, but Reed states his company will reship the product, no questions asked.

Potential Drawbacks of Purchasing Medication from Canada

So should you purchase your prescriptions from a Canadian pharmacy? Every person's needs are different, and while saving money is good for anyone, there are a couple of downsides to this seemingly perfect situation. According to Reed, the biggest drawback for some is the turnaround time on processing and shipping, which could be up to three weeks. He explains that because the medications must clear customs twice, arrival times can't be guaranteed.

"That's the No. 1 thing. You can't control the amount of time it takes to deliver the product," he says.

He also says that a few years ago, it was common practice for the Food and Drug Administration to randomly intercept packages to verify the products inside, but he says it almost never happens today. If you decide to order medications you need daily from a Canadian pharmacy, make sure you order well before you run out of your supply.

Some U.S. Medications May Be Less Expensive

There are instances where using the Canadian pharmacy won't yield the cheapest price. Generic versions of medications sold in U.S. pharmacies are almost always cheaper than their brand-name counterparts, even when sold from a Canadian pharmacy. So if your medication is available in a generic version, check with your health insurance or local pharmacy to see if your plan covers it.
It's also worth noting that if you use a drug such as the cholesterol medication Lipitor, it is under patent protection. This means in the U.S. and Canada there is no generic version of the drug available, which makes the medication very costly. People often seek the generic version, available in many international pharmacies, which might not be regulated or legal in the U.S.

Do your homework if you think this is an option for you and your family; make sure the Canadian pharmacy you choose is licensed by the state you live in, and read all the fine print associated with processing, shipping costs, and requirements.

Ordering from a Canadian pharmacy probably isn't an option for short-term medications or prescriptions you need right away, but it could be an option for your maintenance medications.

Megg Mueller