Buying meds online: Resources for checking pharmacy credentials

Filed Under: Costs, Patients, Providers

Residents of Maine are going to be able to buy medications online from Canadian pharmacies again, after a period in which such sales were illegal. Maine residents are celebrating; Canadian drug prices are much lower than American ones.

This weekend’s terrific piece by Libby Rosenthal in The New York Times about the high prices of asthma medications might only reinforce the idea that buying overseas makes sense: An inhaler that costs $175 here is dispensed free in Britain; a nasal spray that costs $250 by prescription in Oakland costs $7 in Europe and is available over the counter.

For most U.S. citizens, buying prescriptions online from an overseas pharmacy is a questionable proposition: either the pharmacy seems untrustworthy, or it’s seemingly illegal or the sites aren’t selling what you think they are.

So you don’t live in Maine, and you are tempted to buy medications online to save money, from a Canadian or other online seller? Be careful. Who knows if they’re really selling what they say they’re selling?

Finding out if a site is legit

Resources: The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has a certification program called Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS).

The VIPPS site says: “The safest way to purchase drugs online is through pharmacies accredited by the VIPPS or Vet-VIPPS programs. Choosing to buy your prescriptions from a trustworthy provider can help eliminate the risks associated with sites that fail to comply with federal and state laws and regulations. Protect yourself from these rogue sites and select a VIPPS pharmacy for you and your family.”

The site also says: “NABP recognizes that some non-accredited Internet pharmacies may be operating legitimately. Of those entities that approve non-accredited Internet pharmacies, LegitScript.com is the only one that adheres to NABP-recognized standards.

“NABP does not collect data on the prices of prescription medications. Information and price comparisons on medications available at legitimately operating Internet pharmacies are available at Pharmahelper.com, which lists only those Internet pharmacies that adhere to NABP-recognized standards.”

Some other verification options

Recognizing that something like a NABP certification program might exist to protect the business of member pharmacies, I looked at the other entities that say they are certifiers of online pharmacy sites.

There are other options: Pharmacychecker and LegitScript. They seem to have been in a long fight over legitimacy and business practices, with accusations and counter-accusations flying back and forth. Some of the background can be found on this LegitScript page, which is written, not surprisingly, to favor LegitScript’s version of events.

PharmacyChecker, based in White Plains, has been in business since 2004, and its site says it “collects, evaluates, and reports credentials, prices, and customer feedback regarding pharmacies that operate online and through mail-order and fax (generally referred to as ‘online pharmacies.’ … PC helps consumers continually find the lowest priced products from the most qualified and reputable online pharmacies. PC also provides customized reports and services as market intelligence about the online pharmacy industry.”

LegitScript’s site says it “was founded in 2007 after its president, John Horton, saw what a huge problem rogue online pharmacies were from his work at the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, DC. He left government to form a private company that would tackle this issue.”

The two competitors are apparently fighting over business. LegitScript’s site says “PharmacyChecker, a company that performs online pharmacy verifications and approves pharmacies engaged in illegal drug importation, has repeatedly published false and personal attacks against LegitScript and its President, John Horton.

“PharmacyChecker has been informed that its allegations are false, yet declines to remove the misleading information. So, let’s set the record straight …  PharmacyChecker is a competitor. Google used to require Internet pharmacy advertisers to be PharmacyChecker-approved, but terminated its contract with PharmacyChecker in 2010 (followed by Yahoo and Microsoft), and then hired LegitScript to monitor Google’s Internet pharmacy ads in the US and EU. After that, the personal attacks against LegitScript started.”

There’s nothing directly relating to this on the PharmacyChecker site.

Be careful. Do your homework.

This is all  murky, but you should know: if you’re buying medications online, be careful. As referenced above, here is an FDA site with some cautionary notes.

As we’ve said before, often people find they’re able to buy medications at home for less if they shop around. Our acquaintance Dr. David Belk, a California internist who’s written extensively about the costs of care, often recommends that people go to Costco.  Here’s a list he’s posted of common medication and prices at Costco as of Oct. 2013, without insurance (with insurance your costs might be less).

My friend Dr. Leslie Ramirez, a Chicago doc who runs a cost-comparison web site that also has a lot of medication pricing, also points to big-box stores like Costco — though we are certain that small independents can be very competitive for medication pricing as well. (Hello, Klein Pharmacy in Pelham, N.Y.!)

Leslie recommends that we always make sure we’re not assuming pricing is regulated and uniform; here’s her description of the marketplace. (Update: The site seems to be down. We have no further information.)

We have also heard anecdotally from people who go overseas and buy a lot of a given drug or supply — birth-control pills purchased in volume in South Africa, diabetic test strips bought in Europe and so on. We are not certain that importing in volume is legal, so we don’t give advice about this.
If you shop around, you can find good deals at home.