8-12-2019 Drug Importation Puts HIV Patients at Risk

Monday, August 12, 2019 - 1:15pm
Guy Anthony

As a young man, I rarely gave my health a second thought.

All that changed shortly after my 21st birthday. A screening at the Los Angeles LGBT Center revealed I had contracted HIV. Turns out that I was infected during a sexual assault in Philadelphia two years prior.

Since then, I've paid much closer attention to my health. Thanks to the medicines I take, my HIV is fully suppressed.

HIV treatment can cost as much as $20,000 a year. Many patients -- even those with insurance -- struggle to afford the medicines they need even though pharmaceutical manufacturers offer billions a year in rebates on the drugs.

Congress wants to ease their burden by allowing Americans to import drugs from Canada, where prescription drugs are cheaper. To the 191 million Americans living with chronic disease, this may seem like an exciting development. But drug importation would expose patients to dangerous counterfeits and put their health at risk.

There are two types of counterfeit medicines. The first contain few, if any, active ingredients. Patients may not realize they're taking ineffective drugs until they grow seriously ill.

Other counterfeit drugs contain dangerous substances. Investigators have found medicines laced with everything from paint thinner to arsenic.

Counterfeit drugs abound in foreign markets -- they're a $30 billion business. According to the World Health Organization, 10 percent of drugs sold in developing countries are either ineffective or fake.

Even developed countries struggle to police counterfeits. Within the past decade, authorities discovered counterfeit versions of two HIV treatments circulating in the United Kingdom's drug market.

Things are no better in Canada. An FDA investigation found that 85 percent of drugs imported from Canada actually originated in more than two dozen other countries. Few of these countries monitor the quality of prescription drugs as rigorously as the United States. Unsurprisingly, many of the drugs intercepted in this raid were counterfeit.

Such safety risks shouldn't come as a surprise. Canadian regulators have repeatedly warned they cannot guarantee the quality of medicines shipped over their border.

Neither can American officials. Every FDA commissioner and secretary of Health and Human Services over the past two decades has declared drug importation unsafe.

Their concerns are justified. The WHO estimates that counterfeit drugs are responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths across the globe.

Counterfeit drugs put everyone at risk. But HIV patients are especially vulnerable. If they skip just a few doses of their medicines, the virus could return in full force.

Importing drugs from Canada is far too risky. If lawmakers really want to help patients, they can start by scrapping this dangerous proposal and instead look at addressing the rebate system where health plans and middlemen, such as pharmacy benefit managers, are hoarding most of the savings for themselves.

Guy Anthony is the president and CEO of Black, Gifted & Whole.