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Online pharmacies: Are you buying savings or trouble?

Spending on medicines reached $320 billion last year in the U.S., up nearly 4 percent from 2010, despite the fact that prescription drug use fell 1.1 percent nationally, according to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. Simply put, drug prices are high. With a continued weak economy and millions of people without health insurance, many are just saying no to prescription drugs and skipping their meds.

With many people looking for a bargain, it’s not surprising that online pharmacies are getting a second look. Many consumers have two common questions: Are online pharmacies safe? Are they cheaper? The answer to both is "yes" -- with caveats.

Clues about the safety of online pharmacies can be found in a new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. In that study, independent researchers from the American Enterprise Institute filled 370 prescriptions through 41 online pharmacies and tested the authenticity of the medications received. They found no test failures among online pharmacies verified by third-party organizations like PharmacyChecker.com, LegitScript.com and the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.

online pharmaciesAs for prices, while U.S. online pharmacies offer discounts when compared to their brick-and-mortar competitors, international online pharmacies are cheaper than both. U.S.-based online pharmacies on average charge 52 percent more, according to the study.

"Online pharmacies offer convenience -- both traffic and wait time -- cost savings, medical information and useful links. Patients like the privacy and being able to discuss medical issues and questions anonymously," says Judy Borchardt, director of pharmacy for Life Extension. o (She is with Life Extension, not the Foundation, (www.lef.org)

The cost savings can be huge – you can save an estimated average of 80 percent on popular brand-name drug products when you purchase them online, according to Gabriel Levitt, vice president of PharmacyChecker.com.

Fake drugs

But for all the advantages, online pharmacies can be playgrounds for rogues who dispense counterfeit drugs.

"There is a lack of knowledge of the dangers inherent in nonlicensed online pharmacies. Crucial drugs that contain counterfeit substances have killed and continue to kill people," says Jack Fincham, a professor with the division of pharmacy practice and administration at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. "I would never use an international online pharmacy. In many countries, the rate of counterfeit medications is 30 percent to 50 percent -- and that is no doubt an underestimation of true values."

In addition, U.S.-based health insurance plans usually do not allow purchases from non-U.S. online pharmacies to count toward your deductible, says Levitt.

Look for these clues

What's your first clue that an online pharmacy is a suspect operation? Such a pharmacy doesn't don't ask for a prescription. On the other hand, a legitimate pharmacy will require a prescription. If you're dealing with a shady outfit, it could also mean that the protection of your personal data and payment data may be at risk, and that there may be hidden fees added to the drug prices, says Borchardt.

"Play it safe and use only verified sites," says Levitt. If you're dealing with an international site, you want to be sure its verified by PharmacyChecker.com or the Canadian International Pharmacy Association, which approves Canadian pharmacies..Fincham recommends using only pharmacy sites that are listed as a Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site (VIPPS) by the United States National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.

Also, remember that verification matters. For example, online pharmacies that are approved members of PharmacyChecker.com's verification program require a valid prescription and encrypt pages containing a patient's financial and health information. They also publish their valid mailing and phone contact information, among other things. PharmacyChecker.com conducts mystery shopping to make sure sites require prescriptions.

Online pharmacies are an attractive alternative to driving out the store. The savings can be tremendous, but so can the trouble.

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