About 13,000 packages of prescription drugs -- most ordered by U.S. seniors from licensed Canadian pharmacies -- have been held up by U.S. Customs and Border Protection since November, according to figures released Wednesday by a Florida senator.
The largest number of packages, more than 4,000, have been stopped at the international mail center near Los Angeles International Airport, according to statistics that the office of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said it had obtained from a customs administrator. Drugs also were seized at centers in Chicago, Miami and New York.
The customs office -- which has refused to make a public accounting of the crackdown -- said it could not confirm Nelson’s numbers.
The agency did say the seizures would continue, although some seniors have recently reported receiving overdue medications that had been held up by authorities.
The customs crackdown in effect reverses a long-standing policy of the Food and Drug Administration to allow individuals to receive medications for personal use from reputable Canadian pharmacies, even though it is illegal to order drugs from abroad.
The unannounced effort has provoked an uproar among seniors and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who complain that it has deprived people of their medications without warning.
Several members of Congress want an investigation into whether the effort was timed to help the Bush administration’s Medicare drug program. The crackdown began Nov. 17, two days after the Medicare program was launched.
The customs office has denied any connection. Spokeswoman Suzanne Trevino said Wednesday that the effort grew out of an initiative begun more than a year ago to stop controlled drugs that were prone to abuse, such as steroids.
Nelson and other lawmakers want to know why it was extended to noncontrolled medications, such as those used to treat cholesterol, hypertension and other chronic conditions.
“Seniors on fixed incomes rely on Canadian pharmacies because it’s still cheaper than Medicare,” Nelson said in a statement Wednesday. “It’s clear this is a scheme designed to force seniors into the new Medicare prescription drug plan.”
FDA officials have said the agency did not have the manpower to sustain enforcement of laws against importation of prescription drugs beyond the limited “blitzes” it mounted to publicize the risk of ineffective or dangerous medications from counterfeiters purporting to be licensed Canadian pharmacies.
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told senators last week that the customs service was responsible for the crackdown and not the FDA, an agency under his control.
On Wednesday, Trevino said the FDA had been consulted and was aware of the crackdown as it went into effect.
“They absolutely knew what we were doing,” Trevino said. “They were made aware of what [Customs and Border Protection] was doing because we work right next to them in the international mail facilities.”
Leavitt spokeswoman Christina Pearson confirmed Wednesday that the FDA had been advised of the crackdown, but she did not know whether the agency had any say in the decision.