The Doctor Will See You Now? With Online Pharmacies, Not Necessarily — And The Government Is Watching

Buying prescription drugs online in the United States is so easy that the Federal Trade Commission is looking into ways to police it.


For instance, during a sting operation in Kansas last year, a 16-year-old was able to buy Viagra and the controlled substances Meridia and Phentermine online.

“The minor filled out an online application — date of birth, a few medical questions that were optional, and credit-card information — and sent it to the company,” said Kelli Benintendi, assistant attorney general in the Consumer Protection Division. “When our 16-year-old put his true date of birth and got the drugs, it became apparent that a doctor probably wasn’t looking at that.”

The loopholes in the U.S. system have created all kinds of concerns. Since medical legislation changes from state to state, online pharmacies are able to operate in the void of legislative gaps in the system.

Last year, Jodie Bernstein, director of the Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection, testified before a House subcommittee about the benefits and risks of online pharmacies.

According to Bernstein, the rapid growth of online sales of prescription drugs presents significant problems. She stated that both state medical boards and state pharmacy boards had expressed concerns to the commission.

In the Kansas sting operation, they discovered that six doctors reviewing online applications weren’t licensed by the state, and three pharmacies weren’t registered with the Kansas Board of Pharmacy.

Bernstein said that the practice that presents the greatest concern is whether or not the consumer has a valid prescription to obtain the drug. This aspect of prescriptions has traditionally been regulated by the individual states.

Bernstein explained that many aspects of the online prescribing and dispensing of prescription drugs do not fall clearly within the agency’s traditional scope of authority or expertise and have been the primary responsibility of other federal and state agencies.

During her testimony, she described two efforts by FTC staff to purchase prescription drugs online. Both efforts were successful even though, in one case, the staff listed a patient’s medical history that should have raised serious concerns about the appropriateness of issuing a prescription. In both cases, staff of the commission were issued a prescription for Viagra online with no questions asked.

Tom Spring wrote in PC World that it isn’t illegal to purchase prescribed medication over the Internet with a prescription from a doctor. The ethical and legal questions surround the issue of whether a doctor can prescribe drugs over the Internet without ever meeting the patient.

The American Medical Association has already begun looking into Internet prescribing rules. According to Spring, the AMA says that online physicians who write prescriptions without patient contact are in direct violation of AMA policy. The organization wants states to penalize doctors for prescribing drugs sight-unseen.

Spring also talked about pharmacies popping up overseas that allow anyone with a credit card to purchase drugs like the tranquilizer Xanax, anabolic steroids, Rohypnol (a sedative not available in the U.S.), and the narcotic Demerol.

He reported that overseas pharmacies inform American buyers that U.S. Customs will not seize shipments of drugs because a ‘personal-use’ policy allows customers to import a limited supply of drugs. As a result, law-enforcement agencies that try to manage online pharmacy abuse are finding it a challenge to do so.

Spring talked about one instance in Arizona in which authorities found an online pharmacy with an Arizona mailing address that was being hosted in another state.

he resident physician signing off on prescriptions was discovered to be a retired veterinarian living in Mexico. The Arizona State attorney general had tried to stop out-of-state and overseas Internet doctors from doing business with state residents, but lacked the power and enforcement muscle to stop them.

To combat potential abuses, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy developed the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) program. Boards from 50 states, the District of Columbia, three U.S. territories, nine Canadian provinces, and four Australian states make up the association membership.

Of course, despite the legal ramifications of online drug stores, the fact remains that consumers love them. One of the main reasons is that it provides them with considerable privacy. And companies are finding healthy profit opportunities as well. Financial analyst Chris Vroom of Thomas Weisel Partners said the potential size of the pharmacy market, and the sense that the Web is a natural place to sell drugs, make online companies attractive to investors.

According to some estimates, 76 million Baby Boomers are going to be over 40 by the year 2004 — many much older — and their health will start to play a more important role in their personal financial decisions.

Studies indicate that Boomers are already driving the online drugstore industry.

This article has been reprinted courtesy of Computer Partners InfoPool,

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