updated 4/27/2005 12:09:34 PM ET 2005-04-27T16:09:34

Arlene Gregory could not afford the drugs her doctor prescribed to lower her cholesterol and strengthen her bones. But she hesitated to take part in Illinois’ new program for importing medications from Canada at a discount.

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Too risky, she said.

“I wasn’t even sure if that was legal,” said Gregory, a 63-year-old retiree from Lynwood. “I don’t know if anybody’s watching this medication or how it’s monitored.”

So far, business has been slow for the small but growing number of state-run drug-import programs that try to take advantage of Canada’s lower prices.

Only 6,300 orders
The reasons given include the newness of the programs, efforts by the U.S. pharmaceutical industry to make its medications more affordable, and concerns about safety. Federal regulators have been warning that importing medication from Canada is illegal and that they cannot vouch for the safety of the drugs.

Illinois’ drug-import program, I-SaveRx, now available in five states, has processed only 6,300 orders since it started in October. Two other state-run Internet programs that connect customers directly with foreign pharmacies have filled around 13,000 prescriptions since early 2004.

In comparison, 22 million free prescriptions were filled in 2004 through programs operated by U.S. drug manufacturers. These programs match poor people with public and private assistance and help them obtain free or discounted medicine.

Gregory joined one such program and gets free Fosamax for her bones and Lipitor for her cholesterol at a savings of about $200 a month.

Such programs are already under way in at least a dozen states, and the phenomenon is expected to grow with the formation by the U.S. drug industry earlier this month of the Partnership for Prescription Assistance.

“You’re getting your FDA-approved drug so there’s no question about safety. You don’t sign away any liability, you know where your drugs are coming from and you’re not paying for them,” said Mark Grayson, spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an industry group.

Whether imported drugs pose a real danger is a subject of debate.

'Fed up'
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who launched I-SaveRx and helped it expand to Kansas, Missouri, Vermont and Wisconsin, has repeatedly said the drugs the program brings in from Europe and Canada are the same ones U.S. makers are shipping out. But the Food and Drug Administration warns that drugs from a foreign pharmacy could have originated anywhere.

Minnesota in January 2004 launched the first state-operated Web site to help residents import medications from Canada, after Springfield, Mass., and other cities started buying drugs from north of the border for municipal employees and retirees.

The Minnesota program has helped residents fill more than 10,000 prescriptions, but the $2 million spent by people using it is only a fraction of the $2.7 billion Minnesotans spend each year on prescriptions. Wisconsin also has a Web site that connects residents with Canadian pharmacies inspected by the state. From February 2004 until February 2005, 3,080 orders were filled through the program.

Illinois and other states say their import programs are just getting started and have limited advertising budgets.

And advocates of drug imports say the state-run programs represent just one part of a growing phenomenon. Some Americans are crossing the border into Canada on their own to buy directly from pharmacies. Others order online through private Web sites.

“The public is really fed up with it and they’re willing to experiment to get reduced prices. Legislators, responding to that pressure, are looking for anything they can do to get those prices down,” said Sharon Treat, executive director of the nonprofit National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices.

The FDA has gone the other direction, sending warnings to states with drug import programs, including Illinois, and seizing some drug orders.

Tom McGinnis, director of pharmacy affairs for the FDA, said that imports are illegal and risky, while customers who get their medications through programs run by U.S. pharmaceutical companies at least “know they’re getting the real McCoy.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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