Since November 2005, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have seized prescription drugs that 40,000 Americans had ordered from Canada, Sen. Bill Nelson noted on Tuesday. The new policy, which takes effect Oct. 9, was announced in an e-mail from the Department of Homeland Security to congressional staff Monday, Nelson said.
Customs spokeswoman Lynn Hollinger confirmed the policy change Tuesday, saying the agency would no longer intercept the drugs or issue letters to postal carriers indicating it is illegal to import prescription medications. She said the policy change was due to political pressure from lawmakers and people who complained they were no longer receiving their medicine.
Nelson said that the new policy will allow Americans to import small amounts of prescription drugs — roughly a 90-day supply.
"It's a great victory, particularly for the senior citizens who are having difficulty making financial ends meet in a time in which, sadly, some senior citizens have to make a decision between buying their prescription drugs and buying their groceries," Nelson said.
The change means that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will resume oversight of the importation of prescription drugs. Before Customs took over enforcement the FDA largely ignored the importation of small amounts of prescription drugs.
It is still illegal to import prescription drugs from abroad, but Nelson said he received assurances from the FDA that the agency will not act on small drug shipments for individuals.
Nelson, a Democrat who is running for re-election against Republican challenger Katherine Harris, has railed against Customs' involvement since receiving a complaint from a couple whose shipments were intercepted.
He and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., tried to amend a Homeland Security appropriations bill to allow U.S. residents to import small amounts of prescription drugs for personal use. But that bill, which was sent to President Bush this weekend, would only allow Americans crossing the Canadian border to bring back small amounts of prescription drugs.
Nelson said the FDA will focus on large shipments of drugs that are likely being imported for illegal purposes.
The FDA, however, could not yet say whether it will step up oversight of mail-ordered drugs from Canada.
"We haven't heard from Customs yet — and when we do, we can decide what our next course of action is," FDA spokeswoman Cathy McDermott said. "We continue to be concerned about the risk of importing foreign drugs."