Deals vs. Steals: Drugs on the Net

Article excerpt

POTOMAC SOURCES

It's safe to say that Congress won't pass a law this year providing prescription drug coverage for the 40 million people enrolled in Medicare. The U.S. House approved a bill, but the Senate went on summer recess in August after rejecting four attempts by Republicans and Democrats to push through competing versions of payment plans. With most of the remaining days in this election season devoted to campaigning, there won't be time to fashion a deal acceptable to President Bush, the Republican House and the Democratic Senate.

Instead of waiting for movement from sluggish legislators, lots of consumers are trolling the Internet, hoping to catch a price break on medications vital for their health. People age 65 or more comprise 12.4% of all Americans, but they consume at least 40% of the prescription drugs.

NETTING FOR SAVINGS

It's not surprising that consumers would turn to the Internet to look for deals on prescription drugs. People in the United States spent a record $154 billion on prescribed drugs in 200 1 -up 17% from the year before. The average price of a prescription at a retail pharmacy last year was $49.84, up more than $4.50 from the prior year. Prices are rising so quickly because drug companies are increasing their prices; doctors are prescribing more drugs; and many patients are switching to new, and often more expensive, medications that promise better results with fewer side effects.

Recognizing the growing demand, leading pharmacy chains, such as Rite-Aid and CVS, now operate online pharmacies. One company, MedcoHealth Solutions, claims to be the first online pharmacy to reach $1 billion in annual sales. Besides the large pharmacy chains, a multitude of smaller firms are doing business in the United States and Canada. Anyone with an e-mail address is probably swamped with electronic solicitations for discounts on Viagra or a host of herbal remedies to treat baldness, weight gain or assorted other disorders.

Hoping to tone down the Wild West atmosphere of the Internet, state officials are now attempting to regulate online pharmacies. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, whose members are officials of 50 state agencies that regulate pharmacies, has created a procedure to investigate and certify online pharmacies. Approved sites are given a seal of approval identifying them as a Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site (VIPPS). So far, 13 online pharmacies have received approval, among them cvs.com, eckerds.com, drugstore.com, rxrequest.com and medcohealth.com. For the full list, go to www.NABP. net, scroll down to Internet Pharmacy and click on "Find a VIPPS certified pharmacy."

In addition, consumers should be wary of websites that offer to send drugs but require only that customers send a completed health questionnaire with their orders. Any legitimate online pharmacy not 'only will insist on getting a copy of the doctor's prescription, but also will have a toll-free number customers can use to call a pharmacist with questions.

Online pharmacies in Canada promise bigger discounts than their cyber rivals in the United States. …