The nation's top physician said counterfeiting operations would complicate development of a safe and cost-effective program for importing lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada and other countries.
Surgeon General Richard Carmona, M.D., said Tuesday that drugmakers made compelling arguments during a forum Monday that legalizing importation would make it easier for drug counterfeiters to market unsafe products.
"We were not aware of the extremely robust counterfeiting system," said Carmona, chairman of a government task force investigating whether drugs can be imported safely and efficiently. "Certainly this would pose significant challenges to any importation plan that we may be considering in the future."
Carmona said consumers who are crying out for cheaper drugs must understand that "this is not simply, 'Pick a pharmacy across the border and just walk across and get your medication.' It's an extraordinarily complex problem that challenges the best minds in the field."
But city officials in Springfield, Mass., who have allowed city workers to order drugs from Canada since last July, repeatedly have proclaimed their program a success.
"No one has gotten any improper medications, no one's had any problems," the program's administrator, Chris Collins, said Tuesday.
The task force held a three-hour session Monday with pharmaceutical company executives and drug distributors as part of a study mandated by Congress in the new Medicare prescription drug law.
Members of Congress have been pushing importation proposals as a way to lower drug costs for millions of Americans, and the task force must submit a report to lawmakers by Dec. 1.
Carmona said he has not closed the door to finding a way to legalize importation, but he said the panel needs to make sure any program would guarantee patient safety. And he said the companies' dire warnings about counterfeit drugs were surprising.
"I understand that corporate America is going to want to keep their stake in the market. But some of the evidence they presented, irrespective of their stake in the market, was compelling," Carmona said.