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FDA’s Misplaced Advice to Patients in CanaRx Import Warning

Last week, in a warning letter and press release, the FDA went to great lengths to demonize what appears to be an exceedingly safe personal prescription drug importation program offered by a Canadian company called CanaRx Services, Inc. I believe the agency crossed the line with bad advice to patients. In a nutshell, about 500 U.S. cities, companies, and other organizations use CanaRx to offer their employees and retirees a lower-cost international pharmacy option. The prescription medicines are mailed from licensed pharmacies in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom to U.S. consumers. CanaRx’s programs have been in effect for almost 20 years and helped taxpayers and patients save $250 million, according to the company.

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Due Process Exercised to Obtain Personally Imported Medicine

As announced on the Prescription Justice Blog, a person recently exercised their right to defend a prescription drug import that the FDA had detained and she won the case. The drug, Arthrotec, is available for sale at U.S. pharmacies. However, according to the patient, the drug was not affordable here in the U.S. This example shows the FDA exercising its enforcement discretion to permit medicine imports where the patient cited lower costs as the reason for the importation.

If personal drug importation is illegal under most circumstances, then what is behind this“right” to argue with the FDA?

It’s pretty straightforward:

U.S. law that affects personal prescription drug importation explicitly prevents the FDA from destroying a patient’s prescription drug import without “due process” to defend that order. That comes from Section 708of the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act of 2012. The purpose of that law was to make it easier, ironically, for the FDA to refuse and destroy imported medicines for personal use. That can be helpful if the drugs are counterfeit or adulterated, but harmful if they are from licensed pharmacies and the patient importing them can’t afford them here—such as the case noted here.

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Want to go to jail for illegal drug importation? Here’s how…

People buying medications to fill prescriptions in Canada or other countries because prices are too high domestically don’t get prosecuted for it. But people who import drugs illegally and resell them—especially controlled drugs, like prescription opioids, benzodiazepines, and amphetamines— get busted and go to jail for a pretty long time. Even seemingly small-time drug dealers.

As reported in Madawaska, Maine’s local news WABI5, Tristan Nelson was sentenced to a year and a half behind bars for illegally importing 950 pills of Ritalin (an amphetamine) and 450 pills of Xanax (a benzodiazepine) from the Philippines with intent to sell.

Of note is that neither of the medications was a prescription opioid, which is the highest enforcement priority of the U.S. FDA. Addiction to non-opioid controlled drugs, however, is also a public health problem, and clearly law enforcement takes illegal imports of them seriously.

The short story reported in WABI5 simply noted: “Nelson admitted to investigators he ordered the pills and planned to sell them.” It did not say how he ordered them, such as from a rogue online pharmacy, but perhaps I’ll find his court documents later this month to find out more.

Rogue online pharmacies selling controlled drugs for import, and domestic drug dealing, menace the Internet. But according to government data, they are not a major factor in the nation’s crisis with drug addiction and overdose.

FDA enforcement actions leading to prosecution, fines and/or jail for illegal drug importation focus on illegal wholesale importation of all prescription drugs, whether controlled or non-controlled prescription drugs. While it prioritizes counterfeit drugs, the illegal imports can be lawfully-manufactured, safe and effective. Recently, its focus is on stopping imports of fentanyl, mostly its ingredients. Part of that battle is stopping Internet activity that leads to the illegal fentanyl trade. Such ingredients, ordered online and then imported, are used to make fake opioid prescription drugs, which have exacerbated our nation’s crisis with drug addiction and overdose.

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FDA’s Inaccurate Public Information about CanadaDrugs

The FDA’s recent press release announcing its activities in Operation Pangea XI, an enforcement operation to “crack down on websites selling illegal, potentially dangerous drugs; including opioids,” is conspicuously inaccurate about CanadaDrugs.com, which was forced to close its operations back in July. For a more general analysis of Operation Pangea XI, see my post from last week.

CanadaDrugs.com vs. CanadaDrugs

CanadaDrugs.com was the biggest Canadian online pharmacy for well over a decade. During its 17 years in business, it estimated that people ordered one billion dollars in medicines. During that time, not a single adverse reaction was ever reported by the FDA or any health agency. Their business relied on the fact that Americans are never prosecuted for personal drug importation. The law permits, and Congress has recognized the importance of, the FDA using enforcement discretion to allow personal drug imports so people can afford medicine.

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Operation Pangea XI and the Opioid SUPPORT Act vs. Safe Online Personal Drug Importation

Last week, the FDA reported on its enforcement efforts against illegal and “potentially dangerous” online drug sales in Operation Pangea XI, a global initiative run by INTERPOL in cooperation with over one hundred drug regulators. Also, President Trump signed H.R. 6, The Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities Act. I wish it was all about stopping rogue online pharmacies and ending the opioid crisis, but it’s not.

How Pangea XI and the SUPPORT Act are Related

The FDA is highlighting the SUPPORT Act and its effort in Pangea as important parts of the solution to stopping illegal online sales of addictive opioid drugs. The SUPPORT Act gives the FDA new authorities to stop illegal drug imports. So, what does this have to do with safe personal drug importation from pharmacies that require a prescription?

Before continuing, I can’t help note and show you that INTERPOL’s Pangea is funded by drug companies for this work. It’s this Pharma-funded initiative in which FDA plays a crucial role. The FDA does focus resources on shutting down some bad rouge sites, but it seems to also assist PhRMA in ways that curtail online access by Americans to lower-cost medicines from pharmacies in other countries.

There seems to be a tug of war: FDA’s enforcement efforts against safe personal imports vs. FDA’s lawful use of enforcement discretion to allow safe personal imports.

Tug of war (more…)

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Domperidone Imports Available Through FDA Expanded Access Program and Online

FDA Expanded Access ProgramThis week, PharmacyChecker added information about Domperidone to our Domperidone drug price comparisons page to better educate people considering ordering this medicine. The product is also sold under the name “Domperidone Suspension” as well as the brand name “Motilium.” Exploring this drug and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s Expanded Access Program is key when looking at avenues of drug importation that are expressly permitted in the U.S. My aim in this post is to explain how this program works; differences of opinion about medical ethics related to Domperidone and other medications that may not be FDA-approved but are still of interest to doctors when treating their patients; and how this relates to the subject of personal drug importation overall.

Domperidone Treatment and Regulations in Different Countries

Domperidone is approved for sale in Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as other countries, but not the U.S. Unlike FDA-approved drugs sold in Canada and the UK, the FDA provides patients and their providers with a specific, permitted process to import Domperidone for personal use.

Domperidone is approved for sale in Canada for treating several gastrointestinal conditions; in the UK, it is only approved for the treatment of nausea and vomiting.

Domperidone increases lactation in breastfeeding mothers, but, due to serious potential side effects, it is not approved in any country for this purpose. However, in Australia and other countries, it is prescribed off-label to improve lactation. You can find an excellent discussion with points for and against this here: Off-label Prescribing of Domperidone

Expanded Access Programs

While the FDA has not approved it for sale in the U.S., Americans can access Domperidone under the federal agency’s Expanded Access Program. This program provides a permitted protocol to obtain drugs through an Investigational New Drug application (IND). Only FDA-approved drugs can be distributed in the U.S. INDs offer a path for drug companies who want to transport drugs that are not yet approved in the U.S. across state lines, usually for purposes relating to clinical trials of new drugs.

INDs are used by physicians to apply to the FDA to treat patients with Domperidone. While the FDA has not approved it for sale here, the FDA agrees that Domperidone may benefit people with severe gastrointestinal motility disorders when the potential benefits outweigh the risks.

Domperidone Risks

In 2004, with an import alert on Domperidone, the FDA very strongly came out against use of Domperidone for lactation and does not allow imports for that purpose. The agency also stopped compounding pharmacies from making and dispensing the drug domestically. The FDA states that the drug substantially increases the risk of cardiac problems, which outweigh the benefits (including aiding lactation). Interestingly, as recently as 2015, the Pharmacy Compounding Advisory Committee met with the FDA to try and change the agency’s mind to allow them to compound Domperidone. The request was denied.

Here’s a general overview of the program to obtain Domperidone. Detailed instructions for this process are contained in the FDA’s Domperidone IND Packet.

Domperidone Importation Exceptions

The FDA’s communications about this program are to physicians, patients and pharmacies – but patients cannot act without their providers. Unlike personal drug importation of FDA-approved drugs or foreign versions of FDA-approved drugs, to obtain drugs under the Expanded Access Program requires the participation of U.S. physicians, U.S. pharmacies, and the overseas manufacturers of the drugs.

The FDA has identified one pharmacy, called Dougherty’s Pharmacy, with two locations in Dallas, TX that is permitted to import and distribute Domperidone. It’s not clear why there is only one company involved. The FDA communicates that other pharmacies can apply to distribute Domperidone.

The FDA does not permit physicians and their patients to use the program to import Domperidone for breastfeeding mothers having problems with lactation. Recall, it’s also not approved for that purpose in Canada or the UK – or anywhere. However, in Australia, it’s prescribed off-label for this purpose. Off-label prescribing is when a provider writes a prescription for a patient to treat a condition with a drug that has not been approved by the FDA (in the U.S.) for that condition. Off-label prescribing is both legal and very common in the U.S., although  controversial. According to WebMD, 20% of prescriptions are written off-label.

Physicians are allowed to prescribe medication off-label based on their medical judgement. I believe that would include Domperidone. One doctor, Juliet Mavromattes, MD, makes a case for why it would be medically unethical to prescribe Domperidone for lactation in the U.S. – but OK for GI disorders, per FDA’s guidance. Here’s a vehement defense of prescribing Domperidone to improve lactation from a pediatrician in Canada.

Safety When Buying Domperidone Online

If you do choose to buy Domperidone online from another country, be careful who you buy from. There are a lot of websites who will offer to sell this drug without a prescription. Many such sites are dangerous to order from. You can be more certain of obtaining the right medicine, dispensed by a licensed pharmacist, if you stick to ordering Domperidone from an online pharmacy verified through the PharmacyChecker Verification Program.

Prices for Domperidone 10mg range from 16 cents to 49 cents a pill: for 200 pills, that’s $32 vs. $98. The online pharmacies will likely decline to dispense it for lactation from certain countries, including Canada, but may do so from Australia where the drug is prescribed off-label.

FDA’s Path to Safe Personal Drug Importation

As this relates to personal drug importation overall, it’s interesting to note the reasoning the FDA provides for permitting it. Here are some highly relevant excerpts from the FDA’s website:

“The Expanded Access program facilitates availability of investigational drugs (such as Domperidone) to patients with serious diseases or conditions when there is no comparable or satisfactory alternative therapy to diagnose, monitor, or treat the patient’s disease or condition.

“To help facilitate the IND process, FDA has developed this packet, which includes instructions, templates, checklists, a protocol outlining the treatment plan (multi-patient INDs only), and summary of regulatory requirements. As sponsors of an active IND, physicians can prescribe Domperidone to qualifying patients.”

In view of the FDA’s positions here on availability and access, it provides a lot of room to defend lack of access based on affordability. It also shows how the FDA could engage healthcare providers in assisting patients with safe personal drug importation of FDA-approved drugs and foreign versions of FDA-approved drugs. For example, a doctor could fill out a form, similar to the one used to obtain Domperidone, to help a patient import a drug from Canada that the patient can’t afford domestically.

We know that doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants—ones that recommend use of PharmacyChecker-verified online pharmacies—are concerned about the FDA’s actions against personal imports. They would appreciate a more organized pathway to help their patients obtain affordable drugs from Canada and overseas.

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