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U.S. Easing Prescription Drug Border Checks

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Federal officials say that consumers just can't be sure those drugs are legitimate, but they are cheaper, and the ban on them hasn't been popular. NPR's Julie Rovner joins us to help sort these things out. Julie, thanks very much for being with us.

JULIE ROVNER: My pleasure.

SIMON: Firstly, let's start with the legal question. Has anything changed?

ROVNER: Actually, really not. It's still technically illegal to purchase and bring back to the U.S. any drugs from outside the closed U.S. drug distribution system. Although I should add that last week Congress passed a law as part of the Homeland Security spending bill that banned Customs agents from stopping people at the border who are physically coming back with drugs that they bought just in Canada.

SIMON: Mmm-hmm. Now, does this mean that people can order small packages of prescription drugs from Canada, from India, places like that, and the government won't stop?

ROVNER: The Food and Drug Administration obviously has fewer people looking over these packages than Customs does, so even if they start stopping packages, it's going to likely be fewer.

SIMON: Do you we have any idea how many people are ordering or trying to order at this point pharmaceutical drugs from overseas?

ROVNER: We really don't know, because of course there is nobody to keep track of it, because technically it's illegal. We have some idea of the drugs that are coming in over the border through these mailings facilities that Customs looks at. But again, it would be impossible to count all of them. Many boxes, it's not clear that they carry prescription drugs. So there really is no way to count.

SIMON: Do you have any idea what persuaded Customs officials to stop this now? I mean, people will irresistibly note we're just a few weeks from an election.

ROVNER: Interestingly, right now, many of the people who did sign up for that drug benefit are falling into this coverage gap, where they have to pay all of their cost themselves for a while, and so some of them are kind of upset and kind of looking at perhaps buying cheaper drugs from Canada again. And a lot of Republicans who are little bit itchy about the election coming up are worried about these people who are upset at not being able to get their drugs from Canada.

SIMON: Is this the end of the story, simply were going to have this law on the books but it'll be difficult to enforce?

ROVNER: I don't think so. Certainly the people who want this to happen, who want it be easier to get drugs from other countries, are not going to give up. The Food and Drug Administration, on the other hand, is not going to give up either. It contends that this is a safety issue - it's not just an issue about drug company profits - that there are counterfeit drugs, that they can't guarantee that some of these drugs, even from Canada Web sites, are really coming from Canada. So I think this fight is likely to go on for some time.

SIMON: NPR's Julie Rovner, thanks very much.

ROVNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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