Drug Savings vs. Drug Safety

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- Shutting down a firm that links seniors with low-cost medication from Canada would create a "domino effect," leaving Americans nationwide without access to drugs they can afford, the company's lawyer told a federal judge during a hearing Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Claire Eagan will decide whether to issue a nationwide injunction against a Tulsa-based chain of 85 storefronts that operate under the names Rx Depot and Rx of Canada.

Last month, the Justice Department gave the founder of the chain an ultimatum: shut down or be sued. The government alleges that the company is breaking the law and putting the public at risk by importing drugs from Canada.

The government's lawyers told the judge the case was a simple matter involving violations of federal drug laws. Only manufacturers are allowed to bring medicines into the country.

"It's not about prescription drug policy. It's not about the high cost of prescription drugs," said Justice Department attorney Alan Phelps.

Phelps said the government couldn't quantify the risk to the public's health, but the company operated outside the government's "closed safety system."

Rx Depot attorney Fred Stoops told the judge the case had nothing to do with safety.

"This case is about money and protection," Stoops said.

Stoops urged the judge to reject the injunction "so people can maintain their ability to afford drugs."

The city of Springfield, Mass., found it could save as much as $9 million by offering employees the chance to buy cheaper drugs from Canada, he said.

All the outlets operate in the same way. Customers bring their prescriptions into the store, where an administrator looks up the price. The prescription is copied and faxed along with the patient's medical history to a Canadian pharmacy. The drugs arrive in three weeks.

About 100 people, mostly seniors, packed the courtroom for the hearing. Many of them earlier had stood outside the federal courthouse waving signs that said "Save Rx Depot" or "Rx Depot Yes."

The FDA is concerned about the growing number of drugs brought into the country because it has no knowledge about how they are made or what patient information might be included with them, testified Thomas McGinnis, the agency's director of pharmacy affairs.

"Since 1999, the volume of medications coming into the United States has risen dramatically," he said, adding that 3 million packages are expected to enter the country this year.

But he told the judge that the FDA employs "enforcement discretion" when it comes to U.S. seniors who cross over the border, sometimes by the busload, to buy their medications.

Asked by Stoops if he thought the nation had a drug crisis because some people had to choose between medications or paying for food and housing, McGinnis said many seniors simply didn't know about other options available to them.

The government rested its case after presenting five FDA witnesses. The hearing continues Thursday when Rx Depot presents its witnesses.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved.