A new kind of drug war shapes up
• Local entrepreneurs link with Canadian pharmacies to offer cheaper prescription medications, but FDA vows crackdown
Portland coffee shop owner Dan Wood has hit on a way to help people ÑÊparticularly older people on fixed incomes ÑÊpay less for prescription drugs and to make a little money for himself on the side.
It just took a fax machine, some initiative and a drive to Vancouver, B.C., one weekend to check out a potential business partner, Rx Pharmacy, a little five-store Canadian chain.
Rx proved willing, and Wood now faxes his customers' prescriptions to Rx, which fills them by mail directly to the customer.
Rx fills as many as 150 prescriptions a day for U.S. residents nationwide who order their prescriptions through operations similar to Wood's, said Rx spokesman Paul Bawa.
Wood may be flirting with trouble, however. The federal Food and Drug Administration vows to crack down on operations that help bring pharmaceuticals across the border.
Wood's Northeast Portland shop still sells coffee and gifts, but his picture window boldly advertises the side venture: 'Discount Drugs of British Columbia.' He has no drugs on the premises, a fact he declares with a note in the window's upper corner.
The 10 percent fee that Wood charges customers for faxing their prescriptions to Rx isn't the main reason he offers the service.
Having experienced health problems and financial hardship himself, he said it was important to him to help people get affordable medicine.
'If they can't save money through us, then I'm upfront with them: 'Go where you can get it.' '
Rx won't send down certain medications, including drugs not approved by the FDA, controlled substances and drugs that are cheaper in this country.
Wood and a Tigard businessman who has a similar service say they see savings of 20 percent to 70 percent Ñ and sometimes as much as 90 percent Ñ on prescription drugs, the result of Canadian price caps and an exchange rate that works to the advantage of U.S. residents.
Wood acknowledges that pharmaceutical companies hate what he does, but the law school graduate and former Multnomah County Court administrative services director says he's researched it and it's legal.
'All I do is fax (the prescription), make sure the forms are filled out appropriately Ñ and then even in Canada, a doctor reviews the prescription up there,' he said.
A day after he said that, the FDA announced that it would investigate anyone involved with importing medications.
Wood says no authorities have given him any trouble. But Jay Witbeck, another businessman who also offers a prescription-faxing service from his Tigard office, was shaken recently by a written warning from the Oregon Justice Department. It arrived after Witbeck's company, Senior Benefits Group, sent out a 12,000-piece mailing promoting its service.
'If I had the funds, I'd fight them,' Witbeck said.
The Oregon Pharmacy Board says helping people get prescriptions filled by Canadian pharmacies is a gray area legally and one the agency is trying to sort out.
'It's hard to tell whether they're legal or they're violating laws, because they're not dealing with the drugs,' said Gary Schnabel, the board's executive director. 'The pharmacies that actually are sending in the drugs clearly are violating state and federal laws.'
Oregon pharmacists haven't been complaining that they're losing business, either, Schnabel said.
But the FDA is concerned about safety because the strength, quality and purity of the imported medications can't be verified.
State justice officials are also watching for misleading advertising, but spokeswoman Jan Margosian says they're worried about the whole process of bringing medications in from Canada. She sympathizes with consumers who seek less costly medications but says the best way to deal with that is through antitrust laws.
Former Gov. John Kitzhaber, a strong advocate of affordable medical treatment and architect of the Oregon Health Plan, says getting drugs from Canada doesn't do anything about the issue of escalating drug prices.
'I have no problem with people doing it' and for those who can, he said, 'more power to them.'
With the Oregon Health Plan shrinking and Congress unable to agree on a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, more people are expected to seek cheaper drugs outside the country, he said.