KANSAS CITY, Mo -- A popular online pharmacy was shut down by the Department of Justice this month after allegedly selling counterfeit drugs to consumers across the U.S.
Canada Drugs and associated companies was ordered to forfeit $29 million of their profits from the illegal scheme. They also had to pay a $5 million fine and permanently shut down all operations.
Milwaukee resident Lorrie Dawson had been ordering one of her prescription medications from the online pharmacy for several years. When she found out why the company was closing, her initial reaction was disbelief.
"I was shocked. The issue was in fact importation of counterfeit drugs," Dawson said.
The federal investigation into Canada Drugs began with Avastin, a medication used to treat late stage cancer. The FDA discovered some patients were getting a drug with no active ingredient.
According to an indictment in the case, Canada Drugs and some of its subsidiaries misled customers about the safety of the drugs it sold, saying they were "manufactured in FDA-approved facilities overseas." Prosecutors go on to argue the company "didn't know where the drugs it purchased were being manufactured, or who had been handling the drugs" before delivery.
"The thing that was learned about that case is that it was difficult to track exactly where that drug came from," Mary Durham, Pharmacy Automation and Supply Chain Manager for Truman Medical Centers, said.
Durham, who is a published author on track and trace laws, said the counterfeit crisis isn't limited to chemotherapy.
In fact, according to the Partnership for Safe Medicines, as many as 65 fake drugs named in FDA smuggling cases were sold in Missouri, while up to 54 were sold in Kansas.
"The risk you take there is gambling with your health...and it's highly not recommended," Durham added.
To get your medications conveniently and at a cost that works for you, Durham recommends going through your insurer to find a reputable mail order pharmacy.
If you choose to go online, here are some of the red flags Durham said to look out for:
- Cost of the medication. A huge discount is probably too good to be true
- Make sure a prescription is required
- Look for other languages or poor grammar on the label
You can also search the company's name on the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy to see if it's legitimate.
Dawson still has questions about the prescription roulette Canada Drugs may have put her through.
"I was thinking geez have I been paying for placebos or something worse these past years?" she asked.
But she hasn't experienced any negative side effects and plans to take her medication until the supply runs out. It's all a matter of cost. Right now Dawson pays about $31 a month for her prescription through Canada Drugs, while the same medication will cost $112 at a local pharmacy.