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Press Enterprise (Riverside, CA)

Cheap drugs still sought;

ILLEGAL: Despite laws, some Inland residents have prescriptions filled by Canadian pharmacies.

February 21, 2004

Inland residents' penchant for low-cost Canadian prescription drugs continues to grow despite protests from pharmacists and a federal ruling that put two of the largest drug importation services out of business.

In November, a federal judge in Tulsa shut down Rx Depot and Rx of Canada, which had an office in Hemet, one in Highland and 85 other locations nationwide. Lisa Chronopoulos, owner of the Hemet location, recently reopened as an independent operator of Lowcountry Discount Meds, based in Charleston, S.C.

Meanwhile, other Inland services, such as American Drug Club in Riverside and and Ameri Can Rx Inc., both in Palm Desert, are growing.

"We're doing so well, we had to hire more staff," said Andrea Berger, president and chief executive officer of Ameri Can.

Chronopoulos said by phone on Friday that she is not worried about being shut down again, because her current company doesn't have the high profile of Rx of Canada and Rx Depot.

She is re-establishing her business by contacting her 700 Rx of Canada customers, but she said it has been slow.

"They're scared," Chronopoulos said. She believes her customers are wary of the process following the closure of her business.

But overall, the services are flourishing.

"They're just like weeds in a garden," said Carlo Michelotti, chief executive officer of the California Pharmacists Association in Sacramento.

To stem the growing flood of imported prescription drugs, the California Pharmacists Association this week joined the Food and Drug Administration in a marketing blitz, dubbed "Looks can be deceiving."

The campaign comes at a time when state bills are being proposed to make it easier to get medications from Canada.

The campaign includes fliers and posters sent to 1,000 of the state's pharmacists to warn customers of the dangers of importing medication from Canada.

Despite their warning, the association acknowledges it is fighting an uphill battle against the importation of Canadian drugs.

"There's just too much money for it to go away," Michelotti said. Customers can save 30 percent to 80 percent on brand-name medications if they buy from Canada, prescription services claim. The services take their customers' locally written prescriptions and forward them to an affiliated pharmacy in Canada. There, a Canadian doctor reviews the prescription, where it's filled to U.S.��specifications and mailed back to the customer, according to the drug services. The customer is billed, and the services get a commission from the Canadian pharmacies.

The savings are so attractive that state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, and Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Los Angeles, both proposed bills last week that would allow the state to purchase prescription drugs for prisons, state hospitals and Medi-Cal.

But the low-cost drugs come with a risk, the association warns. First, the practice is illegal, but the FDA is pursuing the companies, not those who use them. Other risks include not getting the same U.S. versions of the drugs, counterfeits and not having a pharmacist to help avoid drug interactions, Michelotti said.

He further warns that if there is a problem with an order, customers have little recourse because they are dealing with a foreign business.

Some consumer groups, such as The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in San Francisco, say the pharmacists are as much interested in protecting their business base as in the quality of pharmaceutical care that patients receive.

Michelotti rejects that argument, calling it incorrect and insulting to his profession.