Norphar is pleased to hear:


Insurer tells seniors it'll reimburse them for drugs bought abroad

By Theresa Agovino

NEW YORK (AP) The country's biggest health insurer has informed members of the senior citizens lobbying group AARP that it will reimburse them for prescriptions filled in Canada and elsewhere abroad.

UnitedHealth Group Inc. sent a letter to the 97,000 people who purchased insurance with a drug benefit through AARP telling them about the coverage.

Buying prescription drugs outside the country for use at home violates federal regulations but is a growing practice among some older Americans seeking relief from high prices. Insurance policies generally cover drugs purchased abroad if a person is traveling there and has forgotten their medicine or becomes ill.

Both UnitedHealth and AARP appeared to want to keep the measure low-key, but it was certain to meet with approval from both AARP plan members and others of the many thousands of senior citizens who purchase their drugs in Canada and Mexico, where they are drastically cheaper than in local pharmacies.

Viola Qurion, 76, a retired garment worker who lives in Waterville, Maine, on $1,027 a month, makes an annual pilgrimage to Canada to buy medicine. She said otherwise she would have to choose between drugs and food.

``We don't like to go,'' she said in a telephone interview. ``It is hard for a lot of us to get around, but what choice do we have?''

She said she saved about $500 on the medicines for allergies and indigestion she bought in her most recent trip, made earlier this week. And she doesn't feel bad if that cost U.S. companies some income.

``The pharmaceutical companies spend millions keeping drug prices high. It is shameful,'' she said.

AARP said it is not advocating purchasing drugs from abroad. It described the letter as a reminder of policy, and called its timing ``unfortunate,'' coming so soon after a failed effort at legislation to allow people to import prescription drugs for their own use. Currently, U.S. law prohibits Americans from importing medicines that are available in the United States.

``The letter was just an informational letter to members letting them know that we would be paying claims for all drug purchases,'' said Julie Alexis, manager of member health products at the AARP.

Alexis added that the policies covered by the letter are designed to fill gaps in Medicare, the government health plan for the elderly, and are consequently scrutinized by both federal and state regulators. Neither has expressed any concern over covering drugs purchased abroad, she said.

UnitedHealth said its letter did not reflect a change in coverage but was meant to clarify a misunderstanding. It also said it was not trying to encourage anyone to violate Food and Drug Administration regulations.

``If someone is driving at a high rate of speed and they get in accident we cover them, but it not like we advocate such behavior,'' said UnitedHealth spokesman Mark Lindsay.

Lindsay says the insurer doesn't know how many of the 97,000 individuals get their drugs from abroad to save money.

An FDA official said the agency couldn't comment on the coverage because it doesn't know the details.

The AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, is critical of the pharmaceutical industry. It also has supported bills, so far unsuccessfully, to create a Medicare drug benefit and to make it easier for generic drugs to reach the market.

Experts said it was unlikely that either the drug makers or government officials would take issue with UnitedHealth or AARP over the drug reimbursements.

``No one wants to be seen like they are going after grandmothers,'' said Jonathan Wiener, professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore.

He called the reimbursement policy ``a warning shot at the pharmaceutical industry and Congress. I think they want to add to the outcry about drug prices and hit the pharmaceutical industry in the pocketbook.''

The 97,000 members of the seniors group represent a negligible amount of the pharmaceutical industry's sales. The industry would likely see profits threatened only if the reimbursement policy spread to other insured groups such as company employees, which wasn't seen as likely.

``A local tool and dye shop is not the AARP,'' Wiener said.

AP reporter Karren Mills in Minneapolis contributed to this report.