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As the cost of prescription drugs keeps going up in the U.S., some patients are looking for cheaper alternatives abroad, including Mexico. Bram Sable-Smith reports.
BRAM SABLE-SMITH, BYLINE: When Michelle Fenner (ph) signed up to run this year's Los Angeles Marathon, it got her thinking, Tijuana's only two and a half hours away from LA, and she has a son with Type 1 diabetes.
MICHELLE FENNER: It's so easy to just go across the border and pick up insulin. So why not do that?
SABLE-SMITH: Fenner says this idea's been in the back of her mind for a while. Her son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes nine years ago. He needs daily injections of insulin to stay alive. And the price of insulin is skyrocketing. Last year, when Fenner went to pick up insulin at a pharmacy...
FENNER: A three-month supply was going to be $3,700. Whoa. (Laughter) When did this happen?
SABLE-SMITH: That same supply would only cost about $600 in Mexico. And since she's going to LA anyway...
FENNER: That's when I decided to update our passports and go and get more insulin.
SABLE-SMITH: Fenner's not the only one thinking like this. Close to a million Californians alone cross to Mexico each year for health care, including to buy prescription drugs. Cost savings is the most common reason why. And in Utah, the public employee health plan has started paying for its patients to travel to Mexico to fill one of 13 costly prescription drugs, including the popular arthritis drug Humera. Utah State Representative Norm Thurston passed the law creating the program.
NORM THURSTON: The first patients went in December. But it's going to grow from there as more people find out about it, as it becomes more acceptable.
SABLE-SMITH: The insurer pays the airfare for the patient and a companion to San Diego and then transportation across the border to Tijuana. Now, there are a couple questions here. First, is it legal? The Food and Drug Administration says, in most cases, it's illegal to import drugs across the border. But there are some exceptions. And the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website has a whole section on traveling with medications in their "Know Before You Go" guide. While those guidelines still leave you with questions, Thurston says lots of people do this.
THURSTON: There has never been a single person who has been prosecuted for doing it, and it happens every day at every border crossing.
SABLE-SMITH: Customs and Border Protection could not tell us if there are prosecutions, but said if there were it would not be a significant number. The second question is about quality. The reason it's mostly illegal to import drugs is because the FDA says it cannot ensure their safety or effectiveness. In 2017, the World Health Organization estimated that 10 percent of drugs in developing countries were either substandard or falsified. To address that problem, the Utah program only sends its patients to a designated, accredited Mexican hospital. And Michelle Fenner is taking her own precautions.
FENNER: I've got several people who have sent me information of pharmacies to go to in Tijuana because, you know, you get a little nervous. You want to make sure that you have a reputable pharmacy.
SABLE-SMITH: When she picks one, she'll call ahead and place her order. For NPR News, I'm Bram Sable-Smith in Madison, Wis.
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