2.3M Americans purchase prescription drugs from foreign sources

As many as 2.3 million Americans purchase prescription drugs from overseas, a new study has found. File Photo by chuck stock/Shutterstock
As many as 2.3 million Americans purchase prescription drugs from overseas, a new study has found. File Photo by chuck stock/Shutterstock

June 24 (UPI) -- Fewer than 2 percent of Americans purchase prescription medications from sources outside of the United States, despite recent reports of rising drug prices, according to a study published Wednesday by JAMA Network Open.

Those who do have prescriptions filled, online, by foreign sources are more likely to be age 64 and older, of Hispanic or recent immigrant background and have a college degree, the researchers found.


"We did not observe any significant changes in trends of medication purchase outside the U.S.," study co-author Young-Rock Hong, told UPI.

"However, given the substantial increase in spending on drugs, [Americans] are now faced with decisions on how to purchase their medications," said Hong, an assistant professor of health service research, management and policy at the University of Florida.

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In 2019, the Trump administration announced plans to allow importation of drugs from Canada in an effort to stimulate price competition, according to Hong.

In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Department of Health and Human Services introduced the Safe Importation Action Plan to allow for the safe importation of drugs originally intended for foreign markets, Hong said.


"If finalized, the plan would permit American consumers to purchase certain drugs from Canada," he added.

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For their research, Hong and colleagues used data from the 2015-2017 National Health Interview Survey, focusing on 61,238 U.S. adults who reported using prescription drugs.

In all, 1.5 percent, which would equate to 2.3 million adults nationally, reported purchasing medications from outside the United States, the researchers said.

People age 64 and older and those who earned at least a bachelor's degree were nearly twice as likely to get prescriptions filled from foreign sources, they found.

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In addition, Americans of Hispanic origin or those from immigrant communities, as well as those who lacked health insurance, were more than three times as likely to buy prescription drugs from overseas outlets, the researchers found.

Those with low household incomes -- twice the federal poverty level or less -- were 41 percent more likely to purchase prescription drugs from outside the United States, they said.

"Considering potential risks and safety issues regarding counterfeit products -- more than 10 percent of medications sold online are estimated to be counterfeit -- [Americans] should be informed of these potential risks they can encounter," Hong said.

These challenges could be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as rising unemployment could drive more Americans to get their prescriptions filled this way, he said.


The study didn't address COVID-19 specifically, but "the consequences of [the pandemic] hit minorities and low-income populations harder [and] more of these people may seek an alternative way to meet their medication needs," Hong said.

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