By: Brandon M. Macsata, CEO, ADAP Advocacy Association
When I first heard the news that Congress was considering legislation that would allow prescription drugs to be imported from abroad, I was honestly quite shocked. I know firsthand how such policy can negatively impact consumers who decide to purchase drugs from abroad. The potential consequences are quite daunting.
In 2002 (just shy of my 30th birthday), I was diagnosed with HIV. When my doctor told me the news, a hundred questions came to mind all at once. What was my long-term prognosis? What types of medications would I have to take? Who could I turn to with my questions about life with HIV?
(Editor's Note: The photo of me was taken in 2002 on Easter Sunday during the time that I was importing my HIV medications. At the time, I was still quite sick after experiencing my acute seroconversion. In fact, in this photo my two best friends are literally helping me stand up, and they made me look "presentable" with some make-up. The benefits of rooming with two wonderful women who took care of me.)
What happened next directly shaped my viewpoint of the dangers associated with importation.
I ordered medications from an online Canadian pharmacy. To this day, I have no way of knowing where the drugs were made or if they contained the active ingredients I needed to effectively treat my condition.
At the time, I opted not to consult my physician in the process. Due to my insurance coverage, my out-of-pocket cost was $1,300 during the second month of treatment. For two months, I received medications via mail from Canada. Honestly, I didn’t even entertain the idea of whether the medicines were real or fake.
Fortunately, my doctor intervened and advised me of the reality of what I was doing. She told me that drugs purchased through online channels are often counterfeit and most likely do not contain any ingredients that help patients. In many cases, the ingredients can be deadly. Without even knowing it, I was rolling the dice with my health and safety. It was an eye opening intervention and one that too few patients ever experience before irreparable damage has been done.
Without question, we need to address the issue of rising health care costs in the United States, which greatly contributes to patients buying medicines online. However, legalizing importation isn’t the solution we need. It will undoubtedly lead more patients to risk their health and, ultimately, their lives through online drug purchases.
Consider the following: The World Health Organization estimates that 10 percent of medicines across the world are fake. In some parts of the world, this number is as high as 30 percent. In 2015, Interpol confiscated nearly 21 million fake medicines, a significant increase over the previous year.
As a society, why would we take our guard down when the threat is so high? As someone who is informed on health care issues (even at the time of my diagnosis), my search for Canadian pharmacies did little to warn me against the dangers. I had little knowledge or available information when I ordered medications from Canada.
Rather than open the floodgates to unregulated medicines, we should be doing more to ensure the safety and integrity of our drug supply. Last month, former FBI Director Louis Freeh released a report highlighting the incentives that drug importation would create for criminals who are actively marketing to consumers in the U.S. and the burden it would place on law enforcement who protect our drug supply.
Among his recommendations to be proactive on the issue, Mr. Freeh urges policymakers to conduct a detailed assessment of law enforcement’s readiness and ability to get in front of the threat that exists. I completely agree with Mr. Freeh - this should be our focus.
As we strengthen our defenses, we must also prioritize patient education and engagement initiatives to ensure that we’re deterring importation from the moment of diagnosis. The reality is that a number of online pharmacies with a Canadian flag attached to them are merely front doors for smugglers operating in countries across the globe.
There are viable ideas to combat the rising cost of healthcare – including prescription medications – but importation is not one of them.
Over the past two decades, we’ve made significant progress against HIV/AIDS. Today, there are medications available that we didn’t have just a few years ago. In fact, recent studies have shown that people in North America and Europe who are infected with HIV and who begin treatment with a triple-drug cocktail can expect to live nearly as long as people who aren’t infected by the virus.
Having lived with HIV for nearly 15 years, I know how important medicine is in achieving a sense of normalcy again. If we embrace drug importation, we’re sending a signal to patients across the country that their health and safety don’t matter. Lawmakers should not be playing a game of chance when patient lives hang in the balance.
This opinion piece was also published in the August 11th edition of the Washington Blade.