SUN CITY CENTER — In a few weeks, Gerald Yentes expects to receive the medication that he takes to prevent a heart attack, mailed to his house from a Canadian pharmacy he has never visited, authorized by a Canadian doctor he has never met.
Without leaving the country, the 74-year-old Sun City Center resident has procured for $140 a six-month supply of a generic version of Plavix, a blood thinner available only in the brand name formulary in the United States.
Even with Medicare drug coverage, Yentes estimated that an annual prescription here would cost him more than $1,000, with the medication scheduled to become more expensive under his drug plan.
"I said, 'There's got to be a cheaper way,' " said Yentes, who placed his Canadian drug order with his doctor's approval last week from the clubhouse lobby of his retirement community.
The option he discovered — ordering drugs from Canada — could become even more attractive this holiday season. Along with special deals on electronics and toys, newspapers including the St. Petersburg Times have been advertising specials on Canadian prescription drugs.
CanadaDrugs.com had a Black Friday promotion of free generics for new customers. And Canadian Meds South, an Apollo Beach-based vendor operating out of Sun City Center twice a week during snowbird season, regularly offers $10 off to new customers.
U.S. government officials look askance at these transactions, though they aren't cracking down on consumers. Virtually all prescription drugs imported for personal use from Canada violate U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations. U.S. officials say that most are either unapproved, incorrectly labeled or dispensed without a valid prescription.
Of special concern are online vendors, who can pretend to be from Canada while actually operating elsewhere, the FDA cautions. The agency doesn't have authority over the medications they're selling online, so ingredients may be unknown.
None of these concerns have slowed down Canadian Meds South in Apollo Beach, which has grown to 1,500 customers since opening two years ago. Its top-selling drugs: Plavix and Viagra.
"I've had people cry. I've had people tell me that they love me, because I save them a lot of money," said owner Sue Romeo. "A lot of people stop taking their medications because they can't afford them. It's sad."
Her customers, mostly seniors and snowbirds, tend to ask three questions before ordering: Is it legal? Where do the drugs come from? How much can I save?
She explains to customers that ordering from Canada can save money. Under Medicare, those taking expensive, brand-name drugs can quickly exhaust their initial benefits and land in the so-called doughnut hole, where they have to pay out of pocket until they reach the other side of the hole. By ordering regularly taken medications from Canada, they can save some of their benefits for less predictable needs.
Romeo said the medications she sells are manufactured in the United Kingdom, India, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. She points out that many drugs sold by the major chain pharmacies in the United States are made in the same places. But by going through Canada — where drugs are cheaper than in the United States because of Canada's national health system — she can help customers get discounts of 30 percent to 80 percent.
All she needs is a doctor's prescription and basic information about the patient's health and other medications. The prescriptions are reviewed by a physician in Canada before they can be filled by a pharmacist there. Romeo does not sell prescription narcotics such as oxycodone that are widely abused as street drugs.
Vendors like Romeo aren't pharmacies, but middle men, providing convenience and local storefronts, which many seniors prefer to ordering online. Although Romeo charges a markup, which she declined to specify, her customers still get the benefit of cheaper prices that the Canadian government negotiates with drug companies.
"You can go out in the Internet and find hundreds and hundreds of companies but you don't know what they are," said George Donnelly, who owns Canada Drugs of Spring Hill. "It gives people a comfort level to know that we're here and they can depend on us and trust us. And we save people a ton of money."
But AARP encourages members to research other options before looking to a company selling drugs from Canada.
"Have you first checked out the other options right here in your back yard?" asked Lauren Grider, spokeswoman for AARP's education and outreach department. One option: using U.S. mail order pharmacies. "Did you know you could save close to 30 percent, sometimes more, that way?" she said.
Cherrilyn Grate of Sun City Center, however, was sold at the first price quote from Canadian Meds South. The 63-year-old recently walked out of a local pharmacy after learning that a 30-day supply of an acid reflux medication would cost $230.
So she stopped by Canadian Meds South at the community clubhouse and learned that it could help her to get the medication, Aciphex, paying $90 for a 60-day supply.
"Oh, that's reasonable," said Grate, who doesn't have prescription drug coverage and has previously ordered drugs from Canada through a similar company. "It's really much preferable to having to deal with the pharmacy."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330.