Drugstores diagnosed in Congress

A House subcommittee will hear testimony tomorrow on the benefits and risks of online pharmacies, a hot topic as Internet pharmacies become a growth market.

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A House subcommittee will hear testimony tomorrow on the benefits and risks of online pharmacies, a hot topic as Internet pharmacies become a growth market.

Chief executives of online pharmacies Drugstore.com and PlanetRX are slated to testify before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. Also testifying are consumers, federal and state regulators, journalists, health-care associations, and other online drugstores.

"Unscrupulous sites pose a threat to the health and safety of the American public, and undermine the public's confidence in legitimate online pharmacies," Fred Upton (R- Michigan), who chairs the subcommittee, said in remarks prepared for delivery today. The hearing follows seven months of scrutiny of the online pharmacy industry, and the House subcommittee estimates as many as 400 Web sites now sell "instant prescriptions."

Mainstream Internet pharmacies such as Soma.com and others have urged crackdowns on "rogue pharmacies," where drugs may be dispensed based solely on a patient filling out an online form. Frequently those sites sell so-called lifestyle drugs, such as the male impotence drug Viagra.

In March, four House Democrats asked the General Accounting Office to investigate online pharmaceutical sales. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also requested help from the Federal Trade Commission in monitoring and identifying Web sites that prescribe or dispense prescription drugs illegally.

One goal of the hearing is to delineate the responsibilities of state regulators, which license pharmacies, and the FDA. A working group of federal agencies is exploring how to prevent abuses, and Upton is expected to urge that group be broadened to include states and other relevant parties.

Drugstore.com chief executive Peter Neupert hopes to head off new government regulation. He is slated to endorse a key industry self-regulation effort--the new Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites certification program, sponsored by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy--which represents state regulators. NABP executive director Carmen Catizone is expected to testify, too.

"There are already extensive laws and regulations in place that affect online drug stores," Neupert states. He argues that illegitimate Net pharmacy sites should be addressed with stronger enforcement, not new laws or regulations.

A spokesperson for PlanetRX called today's hearing a "fact-finding mission." Neupert's testimony argues that pharmacies are similar to the traditional corner drugstore or established mail-order pharmacies, with the Internet capabilities added.

"What's new here is not the practice of pharmacy, but the way we communicate with and inform customers," Neupert's testimony states.

Also testifying are representatives of the FDA, FTC, U.S. Department of Justice, the Kansas attorney general, the Texas Health Department, and the American Medical Association. In June, the AMA said it would work with state and federal regulators to crack down on illegal online pharmacies.