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Drugs on the Cheap 

A new Richmond business endeavors to help the most vulnerable of Americans. But is it breaking the law?

Stewart, a muscular former football player, can be firm and even boisterous when he explains his cause. He’s also prone to weep when talk turns to helping an older woman in a Richmond pharmacy last year. She was counting pills because she couldn’t afford the entire bottle. Stewart gave her about $40 to pay the difference.

“I’m not no crybaby, but stuff like this really affects me,” says Stewart, tears streaming down his face. “That was the catalyst.”

Earlier this year, Stewart decided to take the money he and his wife had saved to build a house and start Discount Meds, which links customers with a pharmacy in Canada that offers prescription drugs for 20 percent to 85 percent less than U.S. pharmacies charge. Unlike the United States, Canada places a cap on prescription-drug prices, so the same American-made drugs often are much cheaper across the border. Discount Meds opened last week.

“Something kept tugging at my heart,” says Stewart, who receives a fee from the Canadian pharmacy for referrals, usually between 3.5 percent to 5 percent per purchase. “God, he spoke to me: ‘I want you to do this. That money’s not yours, that’s my money.’”

God, however, doesn’t run the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which says importing prescription drugs is illegal. In fact, last week the FDA and the Justice Department filed their first lawsuits against companies illegally importing drugs from Canadian pharmacies.

Because the drugs in other countries don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the FDA, it’s impossible to ensure their safety, officials say. Business owners such as Stewart are not only aiding and abetting an illegal activity, says Rebecca P. Snead, executive director of the Virginia Pharmacists Association, but placing the lives of customers at risk.

“I understand the motivation that’s driving them, but how can you ignore potential patient harm?” Snead asks. “I would really urge consumers not to put their health in jeopardy.”

To date, much of the focus has been on Internet sales. This year, such sales of Canadian drugs are expected to double to $1.4 billion, according to Jupiter Research, a technology research company in Darien, Conn. The proliferation of Internet druggists has pushed the issue to a more dangerous level, federal officials say, because of the lack of oversight. Studies have found prescriptions filled on the Internet are more prone to mistakes, counterfeiting and often they lack vital inventory controls.

For years, elderly people have crossed the Canadian border to buy medicine in bulk and then bring it back into the United States, which is illegal. Because of political pressures, however, the U.S. government has been reluctant to enforce federal importation laws. Now that Canadian drug trafficking has become a multibillion-dollar business, the pharmaceutical industry has begun to flex its political muscle. The major drug makers have vowed to cut off supply to Canadian pharmacies involved in re-importation, for example, and the FDA is aggressively targeting violators.

The issue, however, has reached a boiling point. There are bills circulating through Congress that would allow the customers to import Canadian drugs legally, for example, and there is more pressure than ever for mandated price relief.

Even Snead recognizes something has to give.

“The U.S. drug distribution system has to look at the fact that we have the safest distribution system in the world … and it’s not affordable,” she says.

Where there’s a free market, however, there’s a way.

By using a pharmacy in Canada, Dennis Allen, a 54-year-old Bon Air resident, saves more than 60 percent on Plavix, a drug that helps keep arteries free of blood clots. He had a heart attack earlier this year and is still recovering, working part time at a grocery store. His insurance doesn’t cover prescription drugs.

“My first month, after I got out of the hospital, I paid $160 for a 30-day supply,” he says. “Out of Canada, I’m getting a three-month supply for $190. It works for me.”

Allen is considering buying some of his prescriptions through Discount Meds Express, which, he says, has impressed him. Stewart, he says, “seems like a nice guy” and Allen likes that Stewart appears to have a close relationship with a big pharmacy in Canada.

“I’m able to protect them from making a mistake, or getting swindled,” Stewart says, explaining that he personally checked out his supplier in Canada. “Anybody can go on the Internet and buy drugs, but you don’t know who you’re getting them from. … That’s what makes me unique. If something goes wrong, I can take care of that for you.”

That’s exactly what worries Snead, of the Virginia Pharmacists Association. Because Stewart isn’t a licensed medical professional, there is no federal or state agency watching over him, a former health insurance salesman who got his start helping seniors at his church find cheaper drugs.

“How can a layperson ensure public safety?” she asks. “He is assisting people in an illegal activity.” The state attorney general’s office says only licensed pharmacists are allowed to offer prescription drugs for sale. And it would appear to be illegal for anyone other than a licensed pharmacist to collect money for the sale of prescription drugs.

Where Stewart’s business fits in, however, is unclear. It’s a relatively new practice in Virginia, says Elizabeth Scott Russell, executive director of the state Board of Pharmacy. But it’s something the state is looking into. “We are certainly interested as are most other state boards,” she says.

The message: A lot of eyes are watching entrepreneurs such as Stewart. On the first day he opened for business, an inspector with the state board dropped by to take inventory of the operation.

It’s a risk Stewart says he’s willing to take. He says he’s helping people, and more importantly, the big boss didn’t give him a choice.

“If I happen to get in trouble for helping people, then that’s something I’m willing to deal with,” he says. “I’ve only got one person that I’m afraid of, and that is the Heavenly Father.” S

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