With the rising cost of many prescription drugs and changes in health insurance, a growing number of Americans are getting their prescriptions through online pharmacies . A 2017 Consumer Reports survey found that about 3.4 million Americans bought at least one of their medications online last year to save money .
Online pharmacies can be a reliable, simple, effective, safe, and private way to buy prescription and over-the-counter drugs. However, it can be difficult to determine if you are buying from a legitimate company.
Before buying from an online pharmacy, you will want to know if it is properly licensed. Organizations such as the National Councils of Pharmacy (NABP), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), PharmacyChecker, and the Canadian International Pharmaceutical Association (CIPA) evaluate online pharmacies for the quality and safety of their services.
There are several potential problems with online pharmacies. While there are laws that protect consumers, these laws have limitations. Even with the laws in place, rogue companies can work hard to circumvent the rules.
Dangers of online pharmacies
- Medications can be fake
- Medications may not be approved
- Wrong medications may have been sold / shipped
- Medicines can be sold without a prescription.
- Consumer privacy protection (including payment information) may not exist.
While the FDA regulates prescription drugs in the United States, it cannot control the safety and effectiveness of imported products. Websites that sell non-FDA approved drugs can appear overnight and disappear just as quickly. Therefore, there is little that can be done if consumers receive counterfeit medicines or are victims of fraud.
What to look for
It is perfectly legal to obtain medications from an online pharmacy, but not all online pharmacies comply with legal regulations. There are a number of points to keep in mind when looking for a legitimate online pharmacy.
Check with your health insurance. If your health plan offers prescription drug coverage, ask your insurer for a list of approved online pharmacies. Companies verify pharmacies before accepting them as providers, so you can be sure that a pharmacy on their approved list is a legal option.
However, if the pharmacy is not approved by your health insurer, this does not mean that the pharmacy is illegal, it just means that your insurance company and the pharmacy do not have a business agreement with each other.
A prescription is required at the pharmacy. If an online pharmacy allows you to write your own prescription, this is a strong sign that the business is illegal. Similarly, if a doctor prescribes a prescription for you at the pharmacy (often without an exam), the practice is unsafe and illegal.
Beware of unusual prices. If you pay for your prescriptions yourself, you probably want to shop in stores to save money. While there are several legitimate ways to save on prescription drugs, if you find an online pharmacy with unrealistically low or high prices, beware.
Make sure the pharmacy has a physical address. If the pharmacy claims to be located in the United States or Canada, confirm that the business has a physical address in one of those countries. A PO Box address can be a sign that the pharmacy is not in the location the name suggests.
Checking your online pharmacy
In addition to looking for red flags, there are important resources you can use to confirm that you are dealing with a legitimate and licensed pharmacy. The criteria for these resources often overlap and can be used together to help you confirm that you have an online pharmacy.
Most online pharmacies are rejected by these organizations. In 2017, a report by the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP) found that up to 96% of online pharmacies did not comply with federal and / or state laws.
In the United States, pharmacists and pharmacies are licensed by government committees. The National Association of Pharmacists Councils (NABP) is a non-profit association of pharmacists councils in each of the 50 US states, US Territories (Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Bahamas) and 10 Canadian provinces .
NABP offers a Verified Online Pharmacy Sites (VIPPS) accreditation program for online pharmacies. The VIPPS program verifies the quality of online pharmacy services, including the way they write prescriptions, protect consumer information, and communicate with customers.
The certified company will have the VIPPS seal on its website. However, concerns that the VIPPS logo could be easily copied and used fraudulently led the NABP to develop a second measure, the .Pharmacy Verified Website Program .
Online pharmacies can use a specific web address with a .pharmacy domain to convince consumers that the website they visit to purchase prescriptions is legitimate.
Pharmacies in both the US and outside the US can apply for the .pharmacy program if they qualify. Pharmacies wishing to obtain VIPPS accreditation must have and maintain an approved .pharmacy domain.
NABP provides a searchable database of websites approved by any program; A list of approved online pharmacies can also be downloaded .
An online pharmacy accredited by these organizations will be listed on the approved pharmacy list on the NABP or FDA website and will have a . pharmacy domain and / or have a VIPPS seal.
Nearly 96% of the online drug companies they inspected failed to comply with state or federal regulations, according to the NABP. To help consumers make informed decisions, NABP provides a list of online pharmacy sites that are not recommended.
The NABP is working with the FDA to determine which online pharmacies will receive the VIPPS seal of approval. Since the NABP represents 50 state boards that license pharmacies, only those located in the US can receive the VIPPS seal. However, pharmacies outside of the United States can apply to participate in the .pharmacy program.
The FDA also provides a resource to help consumers determine if an online pharmacy is properly licensed. Consumers can also report pharmacies that appear to be selling and shipping drugs illegally.
The FDA says it is illegal for consumers to bring unapproved drugs into the US Additionally , it is illegal for any foreign person, company or pharmacy to ship prescription drugs to the US that are not approved by the FDA.
Americans can order drugs in Canada, where they tend to be cheaper. Many pharmacies are approved by the Canadian International Pharmacists Association (CIPA). However, consumers should remember that just because a pharmacy has the word "Canada" in its name does not mean that it is a Canadian pharmacy.
Consumers can protect themselves from fraudulent pharmacies by observing the warnings issued by the Canadian government and by consulting the CIPA Verified Online Pharmacy List .
PharmacyChecker is a commercial company that verifies online pharmacies both in the US and abroad. Consumers can also compare prices of certain drugs and check consumer ratings based on a five-star rating system.
To earn the PharmacyChecker seal of approval, pharmacies must meet several requirements, including but not limited to :
- Require a valid prescription from a licensed physician.
- Medication dispensing at a licensed pharmacy in the United States, Canada, or another country approved by PharmacyChecker.
- Guarantee the confidentiality and security of consumers' medical and financial information.
- Provide accurate and transparent information about the location and contacts on your website, including the address and phone number of the company.
Get the word of drug information
Consumers have an increasing choice of convenient ways to buy prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Using an online pharmacy can be a convenient and cost-effective way to get your prescription drugs, but you will need to do your research to make sure an online pharmacy is safe and legal.