Buying birth-control pills (and other medications) online and overseas

Filed Under: Costs, Health plans, Patients

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People trying to save money on birth-control pills and other medications may look at online pharmacies — or at buying overseas (or across the border).

Online pharmacies — to use, or not to use?

We thought online pharmacies might be an important player. But most of the women we spoke with about buying birth-control pills were unenthusiastic about online offers. Many sites offer drugs cheap — really, really cheap. For some, no prescription is needed.  That worried us, not just for birth-control pills but for other medications as well. There is a whole slew of web sites selling cheap drugs, and some look really sketchy.

The National Association of Board of Pharmacy gives the stamp of approval (known as VIPPS, or

verified Internet pharmacy practice sites) to online drug sellers that meet its standards. It keeps a running list of VIPPS, which could be useful if you are in the market.

The approved sites listed here are all U.S. sites.

There tend to be two kinds: one supported by insurance companies for their insured population (Aetna, Cigna, Caremark) and another group — rxdirect.com, kmart.com, drugstore.com.

“It is technically illegal for individuals to order drugs online from other countries,” according to Roger Bate, an American Enterprise Institute fellow who wrote an article about this topic in the Op-Ed section of The New York Times. “And yet no sooner does the F.D.A. shut down one dubious online pharmacy than another pops up. According to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, only 3 percent of the 9,600 online pharmacies it has reviewed complied with industry standards.”

Savings can be significant, but, as Bate points out, the safeguards are limited. Then again, safeguards in the United States are limited too — just recall the Vioxx scandal, or the compounding pharmacy scandal that killed and maimed pain sufferers whose doctors gave them supposedly soothing shots of steroids that turned out to be tainted.

We are hearing a lot about people with creative overseas solutions also.

A friend writes: “A lot of people I know — including myself when I was using them — get their pills across the border in cities such as Tijuana and Juarez (yes, Juarez. People still go there to socialize and buy things like medicine). A month of pills in Mexico costs $4 or $5 US dollars. You can also put together your own ‘Plan B’ dose using Mexican b/c pills (which are made by multi-national companies, the same ones as in the US). Birth control in Mexico is sold without prescription. Anytime you talk about the wild fluctuations in birth control pill prices, you should be comparing them to what they cost in Mexico, and it also helps to recognize that many Americans who live near Mexico, or travel there frequently, economize by getting their medication just a few feet from the US.”

She also told us that she goes across the border to buy antibiotics and other common medications.

When we last wrote about buying birth-control pills overseas, we talked to women who were buying birth-control pills in Bangkok, Thailand; Cape Town, South Africa; and Ankara, Turkey, quite often when they were on vacation, visiting family or the like. One woman told us she has a friend who travels frequently to Hong Kong and brings back supplies.

Meanwhile, there’s a debate going on about whether birth-control pills should be available over the counter. Here’s an opinion piece by Libby Rosenthal from The New York Times about that.

And, in reproductive pharmaceutical news from all over, we note that , its erectile dysfunction drug, via its Web site, apparently in a move to make it easier for men to buy it (and also save them the embarrassment of going to the pharmacy for this medication). The New York Times article about this development noted that Pfizer could be losing millions to black-market pharmacies selling counterfeit Viagra online.

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