Features September 2003 Issue

Online Pharmacies: Buyer Beware

A little sleuthing before you buy can save you more than a discounted drug.

With the price of prescription drugs climbing more than 16 percent a year, it’s little wonder consumers are looking for new ways to save money on medications, including hunting for better deals on the Internet. But in the world of online pharmacies, where regulations are hard to enforce, telling the difference between a legitimate online company that sells brand-name medications, and a questionable outfit that might be selling contaminated, counterfeit or outdated drugs, is not easy. Here are a few steps you can take to ensure that the next medication you purchase online will be just what the doctor ordered.

Insist on Prescription Fulfillment
Don't buy from online sites that offer to sell you a prescription drug based on a questionnaire instead of a prescription from your doctor. Some of the less reputable Internet sites bypass this procedure, asking you to fill out an online questionnaire and promising that one of their medical staff will review your form before filling the order. But this is no place for the honor system. How do you know what the qualifications are of the person reviewing your form? Conversely, how does their medical staff know you’ve filled out the questionnaire fully, and not forgotten to mention your heart or diabetic condition, or other drugs you’re taking? An online questionnaire is no substitute for a meeting with your doctor, who can review your medical history, perform an exam, and counsel you about possible side effects or drug interactions.

Is It Easy To Ask Questions?
Don’t buy from an online pharmacy that doesn’t provide a phone number you can call. This is important if you have a question, problem or complaint. Legitimate online pharmacies will offer free phone consultation, so you can talk to a physician or pharmacist about the risks and benefits of the drug you’re considering, as well as have the opportunity for follow up should you develop serious side effects. Some online companies will offer an “ask the pharmacist” email service, which is helpful, but look for one that has a real phone number and mailing address. Such organizations are less likely to be here today, gone tomorrow.

Tap A Watchdog
Though you may not have the time to figure out which of the more than 200 online pharmacies are legitimate, there are several independent organizations that do, and are committed to helping you find a reputable online pharmacy. These include:

• The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP)—This group’s Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) program can provide you with information about the credentials of an online pharmacy. To pass its certification program, an online pharmacy must maintain all state licenses and permit an NABP team to inspect its operation. Go to www.nabp.org/VIPPS or call (847) 698-6227.

• Internet and Mail Order Pharmacy Accreditation Commission (IMPAC)—Created to help consumers identify quality providers of prescription drugs by mail and the Internet, IMPAC ensures that online pharmacies have policies, procedures and business practices in place that ensure quality of product and distribution. Go to www.na-pca.org or call (800) 677-7019.

• PharmacyChecker.com—This agency checks on whether an online pharmacy is licensed, requires an original prescription, provides a phone number and address, protects the privacy of information you share, and finds out what other charges and fees may be added to your bill. An annual subscription to this service costs $20. Go to www.pharmacychecker.com or call (718) 387-4526.

Don’t Overlook Extra Costs
Though saving money is a big reason to buy medications online, make sure you’re aware of the extra fees that some online pharmacies add to your bill. When it’s time to compare prices, be sure to include shipping charges as well as fees paid to the pharmacists to write the prescription. This is especially true when considering buying medications from an online pharmacy outside the U.S. Because of price controls, the same brand drug may cost 40 percent less in Canada than in the U.S., but this is before you add on shipping, the pharmacist’s fee, and other possible charges, such as a set-up charge or order fee.