ATLANTA – A growing number of cost-conscious Americans are getting their prescription drugs from Canada, whether they cross the border in person, order their meds online or go to one of the Canadian-company storefronts popping up around the U.S.
Sandra Engle of Decatur, Ga., is among those who take advantage of the cheaper prices to the north. One of the people she buys for is her 81-year-old mother.
"It's a great service, especially for seniors and people who are on a fixed income," Engle said.
The trend began with Americans -- many of them elderly -- riding buses across the Arizona-Mexico and U.S.-Canada borders to take advantage of the other countries' government price controls on drugs. Then Canadian prescriptions became available online, through Web sites like The Canadian Drugstore at www.tcds.com/; www.saveoncanadianmeds.com/; www.rxinternational.com/; and www.canamericadrugs.com/.
Buying prescription drugs online has been possible with U.S.-based organizations for some time. Some U.S. healthcare companies offer that service, as does the AARP with its AARP Pharmacy at www.aarp.org. But the Canadian sites have just caught on in the last few years.
In fact, the Canadian Internet businesses have become so successful that they've begun advertising on television and expect to top 1 million customers this year. Some have even opened storefront operations in strip malls to take orders in person, like the national, multi-location Canada Rx Shop at www.canadarxshop.com/; Canadian Discount Drugs at www.canadiandiscountdrugs.com/; and Medications-Cheaper at www.medications-cheaper.com.
"A lot of the elderly on Medicare are not Internet-active," said Mike Shelton who works at the Canada Rx Shop store in suburban Atlanta. "This also gives face-to-face contact, which a lot of people are more comfortable with."
Patients bring in their U.S. prescriptions and fill out a brief medical history. The paperwork is sent to a pharmacy in Canada, where the prescription is filled and mailed directly to the patient.
Fox News checked the average price of four popular prescription drugs at U.S. pharmacies: The allergy medication Allegra D, the Arthritis drug Celebrex and two cholesterol-lowering medications, Lipitor and Zocor.
Compared to the prices of the same 100-pill count of each drug in Canada, U.S. costs were an average of 48 percent higher.
Importing medications from out of country is technically against Food and Drug Administration policy, but the agency doesn't usually enforce the law for medications bought for personal use -- only for commercial use.
Still, drug companies are using the legality issue to fight the trend, which threatens their business. Glaxo Smith Klein has vowed to stop supplying Canadian pharmacies that export prescription drugs. And the pharmaceutical industry says it has serious concerns about the safety of Americans who order medications from out of the country.
"It may get damaged in shipment from heat or cold," said Dr. Mike Miller, an industry consultant. "Most importantly, they're losing a connection to their healthcare team because they don't have a pharmacist they can consult with or their pharmacist can't consult with their physician if there's a question about their medicines."
But the Canadian drug-ordering services have no plans to bow down to pressure from manufacturers.
"Clearly, they don't like it," said Brian Abrahams of Medications-Cheaper. "But if they were to try and lobby us out of business, they would have something like 50 million senior citizens beating on their doors."
Drug companies defend their higher U.S. prices, saying they spend billions of dollars on research and development of new, lifesaving pills. But as long as the Canadian government limits the cost of medications, many Americans on tight budgets will opt to make a run for the border.
Fox News' Jonathan Serrie contributed to this report.