Amid mounting criticism of their crackdown on mail-order medications, customs officials have begun releasing hundreds of seized packages to consumers, Canadian pharmacies and U.S. lawmakers said Tuesday.
It was unclear whether the action signaled an end to the crackdown, which started in November when U.S. Customs and Border Protection quietly increased seizures of prescription drugs mailed from abroad.
After repeatedly denying that they had changed policies, customs officials this week acknowledged that the agency had stepped up enforcement of a federal law banning personal importation of pharmaceuticals.
Although it is illegal for individuals to import medications, federal authorities had generally allowed shipments from licensed Canadian pharmacies.
The seizures -- as much as 5% of orders from American consumers, according to some Canadian pharmacies -- sent thousands of mail-order buyers, most of them seniors living on fixed incomes, scrambling for drugs to control cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Many of those consumers got another surprise in recent days as postal carriers began delivering hundreds of seized packages -- some held for two months.
“The mailman showed up, and he had three manila envelopes from U.S. Customs,” said Samuel Robert Greenberg, 73, of Laguna Niguel, who has publicly criticized the seizures.
The retired real estate broker’s order of eyedrops and cholesterol medication had been seized in January. When it arrived Saturday, Greenberg told the mail carrier to send it back because he already had received free replacements from Calgary-based MinitDrugs.
Greenberg also feared that the eyedrops had gone bad -- they require refrigeration after two weeks -- and was disturbed that the order had obviously been opened and repackaged.
Customs spokeswoman Lynn Hollinger said Tuesday that she was unaware that seized packages had been sent on to customers, saying she could not explain the reports from pharmacists and consumers.
More than 30 customers called Winnipeg-based CanAmerica Global to report that they had received medications Tuesday that had been shipped in early January. At the same time, they received the free replacements the pharmacy had sent a month later.
“It’s amazing how they are arriving on the same day,” said Bill Pigden, CanAmerica’s business development manager. “You can’t tell me this is an accident.”
Pigden said some packages had been opened, and CanAmerica was urging customers to return them for safety reasons.
Andy Troszok said his Calgary-based Extended Care Pharmacy had heard from about 100 customers whose orders had been seized, each saying their drugs had been delivered since Friday. Other pharmacies were reporting similar experiences, said Troszok, president of the Canadian International Pharmacy Assn.
“All of a sudden, we’ve seen a massive amount of shipments being released to our customers,” he said. “Our phones are ringing off the hook with customers saying they are getting their packages.”
Some U.S. lawmakers concerned with the issue also said they had heard from constituents who reported receiving seized packages.
The crackdown prompted seniors and members of Congress to demand explanations for why the government was not following a Food and Drug Administration policy that allows people to mail-order or carry across the border a 90-day supply of prescription drugs from licensed Canadian pharmacies.
“This unannounced policy of increased enforcement is irresponsible,” Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) said Tuesday. “If federal agencies have decided to increase the seizure rate of imported prescription drugs, they need to explain why. The Americans whose health depends on these medications have a right to know.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said in a floor speech Tuesday that he had received complaints from more than 100 constituents whose medications had been seized. And he wondered, as have other critics, whether the seizures were timed to discourage seniors from buying cheap drugs abroad as an alternative to the Bush administration’s new Medicare drug program.
“I certainly hope there is no connection between this spike in prescription drug seizures and an effort to force seniors into the new Medicare prescription drug program,” he said.
According to an e-mail from a customs official to Nelson, the seizure policy change occurred Nov. 17 -- two days after enrollment in the drug program began.
Customs officials, however, denied any connection, saying in the e-mail to Nelson that the stricter enforcement was intended to “protect consumers from potentially dangerous drugs manufactured abroad. In no way are these procedures intended to force U.S. residents into participating in Medicare Part D.”
On Tuesday, customs spokeswoman Hollinger said she did not know who ordered the increase in seizures and had no explanation for it, beyond a general goal of enforcing the law and promoting safety.
Nelson on Friday had called for the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, which includes customs, to investigate whether the agency was abiding by the FDA’s policy of allowing the purchase of medications from Canada.
Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican senator from Maine, where consumers have long crossed the border to buy cheaper drugs, also is criticizing the crackdown. On Feb. 6, 11 members of Congress, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and eight other Republicans, wrote to the FDA to complain about the seizures.