Last week Community Catalyst and six California-based senior and consumer groups wrote to the California delegation of the U.S. House in support of a federal system to track the authenticity of prescription drugs.

The letter expressed support for the leadership of Reps. Bilbray (R-CA) and Matheson (D-UT) in sponsoring the Safeguarding America’s Pharmaceuticals Act of 2011 (H.R. 3026). The bill would protect patients from counterfeit and diverted drug products by establishing an FDA mandated national drug identification and tracking system. The letter was signed by the Gray Panthers (statewide and Berkeley-East Bay), the California Alliance of Retired Americans (CARA), Congress of California Seniors, CALPIRG, and CA Citizens for Health Freedom, as well as Community Catalyst.

Prescription drug counterfeiting has become one of the most lucrative crimes in the world. As such, there is no reason not to use modern technology to track the distribution of our vital medications and ensuring that the drug distribution system is secure. The network of businesses that move drugs from manufacturer to the patient is extremely complex, creating opportunities for highly profitable schemes to move stolen or counterfeit drugs into legitimate channels of distribution—and then to patients. These illicit products can be degraded, clinically dangerous, or ineffective, putting patients at risk. For example:

  • Cancer and transplant patients were exposed to counterfeit Epogen and generic Procrit in 2002. Criminals netted a profit of $46M and more than 90,000 vials may have reached patients. This was exposed when some patients suffered painful side effects.
  • Cancer, cholesterol and other drugs were bought from Medicaid patients on the streets of New York and resold to a wholesaler and then to pharmacies. Two men were convicted in 2008 for the $6.8M scheme.
  • Thieves stole 129,000 bottles of insulin in 2009. Stored under unknown conditions, the temperature sensitive drug was sold back to pharmacies and ultimately to diabetics.
  • Counterfeit Lipitor™ from Central America was illegally imported and sold into U.S. distribution in 2003.
Drug products move between large wholesalers, smaller wholesalers, large chain drugs stores or small pharmacies. While smaller wholesalers are required to maintain drug ‘pedigrees’ (paper or electronic transaction histories) under federal law, the larger “authorized distributors” of manufacturers are exempt. We need a uniform track and trace system to verify the history of all drugs, throughout each of the distribution channels.

This is of special significance to the state of California, which took the lead on the “pedigree” issue in 2004, when it passed legislation spearheaded by the Board of Pharmacy, CA senior groups and Health System Pharmacists. But the implementation of a state tracking and authentication system was delayed until 2015-17 by subsequent legislation, in order to allow the federal government to create one uniform national system.

Since then, 28 other states have also passed some form of drug pedigree law, but varying provisions make industry compliance complicated and open to abuse. Comprehensive federal legislation like the Safeguarding America’s Pharmaceuticals Act of 2011 (H.R. 3026) would ensure consistency, as well as meet the California legislature’s deadline and goals.

H.R. 3026 would:

  • Require manufacturers to place a unique identification number on each package of drugs (the smallest salable unit) bought and sold in the United States.
  • Establish an electronic tracking system to allow companies to verify the authenticity of the drugs they buy and sell, and requiring every entity that receives a drug during distribution to perform such authentication.
  • Strengthen national guidelines for state wholesaler licensure standards.
Eight years ago, Cesar Arias, a pharmacist and drug inspector for the state of Florida, told congressional investigators:

“No patient in the nation can know with 100 percent certainty that the drugs they are getting are what they are purported to be — or if they are, that they have not been in the trunk of someone’s car, or sitting in a hot warehouse or a crack house in South Florida .”

It is well past time to heed his warning.

— Marcia Hams, Prescription Access and Quality & Wells Wilkinson, Prescription Access Litigation