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Pharmacy links to international market

by Susie Vasquez
Rick Gunn/Nevada Appeal Pharmacy International co-owner Mike Oliver looks through the Complete Drug Reference Book Wednesday at his business in Carson City. Oliver uses the reference book and computer to find the lowest price for prescription drugs.
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Carson City businessman Ron Weddell, a partner in Pharmacy International LLC, said the monopoly held by drug manufacturers in this country is the main reason for the high cost of drugs.

If pharmaceutical companies conducted their business in an open and competitive market, Weddell said, he would be out of business.

Pharmacy International shops the world market for the lowest drug prices, then forwards the information to customers, who pay a fee for the service. The company, which started four years ago with one employee, now has 13 in a sleek, modern office on Arrowhead Drive.

Mike Oliver, a partner in the business, spends his days in front of a computer researching the best prices. He said he can get tamoxifen, a drug used for breast cancer treatment, 80 percent cheaper in Israel, which has a reputation for regulating the quality of its drugs.

“It’s outrageous what people pay in this country,” he said.

Manufacturers have moved the bulk of their operations to foreign countries, where labor is cheaper and tax structures are more friendly. As a result, drug manufacturing is an international industry, with the majority originating in countries such as Germany, Sri Lanka, India, China and Belgium.

A percentage of those drugs are sold cheaply overseas, but other countries can’t import drugs to America, giving manufacturers a monopoly here, Weddell said.

“Title 21 of the Federal Food, Drug and Consumers’ Act of 1987 made it economically impossible for any other than the manufacturer to import drugs into the United States, unless by an individual for personal use,” he said.

Keith McDonald, executive secretary of the Nevada Pharmaceutical Board, agreed the majority of drugs are produced in foreign countries.

“They don’t want it known, but look at the manufacturers’ Web sites,” he said.

When a European company produces a batch drugs, for example 10 million capsules, a portion can be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Those drugs are given a lot number and national drug code number before they are transported to the United States, McDonald said.

“That same company can take the other drugs and sell them on the European market,” McDonald said. “My understanding is, at that point, the drug is exactly the same.”

By keeping manufacturing offshore, companies aren’t taxed by the United States, but they do take federal money for research and development. Whether their names are Lilly, Pfizer or Merck, all manufacturers operate the same way, Weddell said.

Pharmacy International LLC caters to a wide clientele, but most are seniors without insurance and people with chronic illnesses like diabetes and breast cancer. The company also deals in injectable drugs for professionals, including chemotherapy drugs for oncologists and those performing in-vitro fertilizations; and U.S. prison systems, Weddell said.

“In America, prisoners get the best drugs in the world at the taxpayers’ expense, while some of our senior citizens must share prescriptions to make ends meet,” said Weddell. “Sometimes, older people have to decide between groceries and drugs.”

McDonald said that to his knowledge, there is no law prohibiting a consumer from filling a prescription overseas.

Federal laws are in such flux that the Federal Drug Administration is governing them. Many states have looked at some form of legislation concerning the problem, but are waiting for a clear ruling from the federal government, McDonald said.

“In Nevada, we’ve looked at testing drugs at the local level, legalizing Canadian pharmacies, or allowing drugs to be imported to local pharmacies from Canada,” he said. “But Nevada’s executive branch said they didn’t want to do anything to violate federal law.”

People want inexpensive drugs, and many congresspeople want them to be able to purchase cheaper drugs, McDonald said.

“But they should buy from a reputable place,” he said.” Canada is one, and Israel also has a good supply for their citizens. Others, like Mexico, don’t have copyright or trade laws so counterfeiting could be easily accomplished.”

It’s a complex area. Weddell disagreed, saying counterfeiters concentrate on the more expensive, and therefore cost-effective, injectable drugs.

“There’s no market for drugs used for hypertension or cancer drugs taken orally. They’re too cheap,” he said. “And Mexico purchases their drugs from the same company as Walgreen’s.”

McDonald, however, cited the recent distribution of 200,000 Lipitor capsules through a firm in Missouri, and a Chinese company that imitated the formula for Celebrex then sold it as that drug on the Florida coast.

Contact Susie Vasquez at svasquez@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1212.