Rising pharmaceutical prices are bedeviling benefits managers nationwide. Some are now looking to international sources to supply medicines for less than half the price charged in the United States.

The idea of getting cheaper drugs from Canada and other first-world countries isn’t new. Traditionally, it was the realm of individual senior citizens willing to board buses to save money on medications. The Internet has made those purchases easier, through mail-order pharmacies and pricing and verification services like Pharmacychecker.com.

Self-insured organizations are now getting in on the game with the help of consultants like Gary Becker, who runs ScriptSourcing, based in Baltimore. The company offers a turnkey program for delivery of 90-day supplies of prescription medicines.

“These meds are factory packaged and sealed,” Becker explains. They’re sourced from brick-and-mortar pharmacies in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

“Their standards and safety protocols are as high or higher than the U.S.,” Becker says. And the savings can be considerable. For example, the cancer drug Gleevec costs $146,000 in the US and $38,000 in Canada.

Importing drugs from outside the United States is technically illegal. But law enforcement has turned a blind eye for decades on purchases for personal use. Gabriel Levitt, president of Pharmacychecker.com, says he hasn’t heard of a person being arrested for such purchases in 15 years.

Becker works with one of the leading international sourcing companies, CRX International, which has been in the business for 16 years. The company is bonded and offers a policy that indemnifies plan sponsors for product and/or professional liability.

Additionally, the drug industry has argued for years that foreign drugs aren’t safe, but advocates say little evidence supports that assertion.

Also see:CVS/Aetna deal likely won’t improve prescription drug prices.”

“Peer-reviewed, independent research, in which medications and pharmacy practices were tested has clearly demonstrated that properly verified international online pharmacies sell lawfully-manufactured medication that is equally safe as those you would buy at a local pharmacy,” says Levitt.

Employer experience
Saval Foodservice in Elkridge, Md., saves $15,000 to $20,000 a year using ScriptSourcing, says Chief Financial Officer Mark Holzman. But there was initial resistance among employees to the idea of obtaining medications through the mail.

“It’s a very slow process,” admits Holzman, who brought in Scriptsourcing four years ago. “It’s a cultural change and difficult to accept.” To help bring people along, Becker’s company offers a zero copay on internationally sourced meds.

Seventy-five percent of Saval’s workers now participate in the program. “We’ve had positive feedback from everyone taking them,” says Holzman.

As for the change in mindset, he looks at it like any other kind of inventory management. “We order K-Cups every eight weeks. Our employees can do the same on the pharmacy side.”

Rotary Corp. in Glennville, Ga., started with ScriptSourcing two years ago. So far, 48 employees out of its 364 total workforce have taken advantage of the zero copay. HR Manager Lisa Arsenault admits many of her employees had reservations about international medications, but she’s confident it’s the right decision to offer it. “It was a no-brainer.”

Becker has begun a new program for expensive specialty medications. ScriptSourcing is offering incentives for pharmacy tourism including a $3,000 gift card that covers all travel and expenses to places like the Cayman Islands and Cancun.

“Humira costs $55,000 in the United States,” Becker says of the drug used to treat arthritis and Crohn’s disease. “The cost of the medication (including the gift card) is $25,000 in Mexico.”

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