RXIn the not-so-distant past, shopping for pharmaceuticals online was considered safe only for professional stuntmen and thrill-seekers bored with base-jumping and snowboarding down the Himalayas.   Thanks to some recent Internet innovations and developments,  buying legal drugs online is getting safer.   And it is none too soon, what with prescription drug purchasing ballooning.   In 2014,  spending on pharameuticals jumped 13% last year.  Now, Americans spend an estimated  $374 billion on prescription drugs That’s over $3,081 per U.S. household!  Yes, that’s nuts.  And the figures will be going higher due to our aging population, according to industry analysts.

With co-payments becoming increasingly unavailable, and being replaced by dreaded co-insurance (which replaces flat co-payments with percentages), purchasing drugs is getting more expensive.   In the past, consumers were left with few reasonable choices.   Yet, about five million Americans buy prescription drugs from foreign sources each year.   This, despite government sources warning that “rogue online pharmacies,” polluting the Internet and endangering the health of consumers worldwide.  There are a much smaller group of safe domestic online pharmacies.

This year, a Congressional bill called “Safe and Affordable Drugs from Canada Act of 2015″ was introduced. The bill, H.R. 2228 is co-sponsored by members of both parties and a similar bill in currently in the Senate.  The bills are focused on Canadian pharmacies only, not the wider landscape of international online pharmacies, which are often based in Canada.  If passed, the FDA would be required to publish a list of approved Canadian pharmacies from which Americans could legally import, for personal use, non-controlled, non-biologic, and non-temperature sensitive, prescription medications.

But in the meantime, those lists do exist.  You can verify the Canadian pharmacies at this web site . Unfortunately, there are only 68 verified Canadian pharmacies.  With the passage of HR 2228, this number would hopefully increase.   Also, Canadian pharmacies are certified by the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, which states on its website that CIPA-certified pharmacies follow the “same stringent confidentiality and safety procedures as U.S. pharmacies.” CIPA-certified pharmacies are legitimate and licensed in Canada, but they cannot be verified by U.S. pharmacy bodies. Research has shown that legitimate Canadian pharmacies sell legitimate drugs at cheaper prices.   Unfortunately, the FDA reports that many online pharmacies that appear Canadian are actually operating out of other countries.

Among the most popular countries to purchase drugs from are Mexico and India, since many prescriptions can be purchased at a fraction of the cost. When it comes to Mexico, many drugs that require a prescription in the U.S. to purchase can be bought over-the-counter south of the border and aren’t considered controlled in either country. These are the drugs that account for most international prescription purchases­—antibiotics, acne creams and blood pressure medications. Back in 2009, the FDA estimated that up to 40% of Mexican pharmaceuticals were counterfeit, and it strongly cautions against their use.   Yet, untold millions of Americans travel to Mexico to purchase pharmaceuticals at substantial discounts.   The quality of the drugs are largely good.   However, purchasing online from Mexico removes a layer of verification and is riskier. Others buy their drugs online from Indian pharmacies.  Because India’s drug laws are incomplete and difficult to navigate, this can be extremely risk.  There is no enforcement of drug quality in India and most online pharmacies based in India do not comply with local laws and regulations.  Additionally, there are no current laws on e-commerce in India, meaning there are no requirements to protect your personal information.

Back here in the U.S.,  new online shopping tools are helping consumers shop for U.S. pharmacies.  These are are crowd-sourced online prescription price comparison sits and apps.  You can save as much as $100 between the same pharmacies in the same town. Back in 2013, Consumer Reports compared some the most widely used drug price comparison apps.  They included GoodRX,  WeRX and Costco.  While not crowdsourced, Costco lists the prices of prescriptions so that you can compare prices and research your options yourself. The drug info section is handy if you lose the paperwork they give you at the pharmacy counter or if you need to look up side effects or other instructions. Bonus—you don’t have to be a Costco member to use the warehouse club’s pharmacy   GoodRx is a free web-based but is also available for iPhone/iPad and Android devices.  CR rated it highly. Bonus – you don’t have to cough up any personal information to search for discounts on your medications. Their website says that they promise not to not sell your personal health information to anyone.WeRX  is a non-profit organization that only offers an iOS app.  WeRX found prices at a lot more local “mom-n-pop” stores than GoodRx did. The app also provides one-click reporting of a new location and price that you have found.

Another online resource is Pharmacy Checker.   It boasts an extensive list of drug names and prices and even includes foreign pharmacies.   It claims to be the only independent company that verifies U.S. and international online pharmacies and compares prescription drug prices.

Clear Health Costs is a new entrant to the crowdsourcing drug game.   This website was created by professional journalists who have joined forces with public media and foundations to create this web-based resource.  It is not available in apps formats and is limited to some major metropolitan areas.  Yet, it offers some very useful medical cost information and is not limited to pharmaceuticals.

One other web resource launched in late 2014 is the .pharmacy Top-Level Domain (TLD) program.  This new domain provides an easier way for consumers to identify safe and legal online pharmacies and for the operators of those websites to stand out from the “rogue” crowd. If a website has “.pharmacy” at the end of its web address, there is a greater likelihood that the online pharmacy is operating legally.   Something to look out for if you jump into the increasingly safer waters of online drug purchasing.