Forgetting about the potential dangers to competition from corporate Leviathan Amazon, that it launched a new online pharmacy this week will certainly appeal to tens of millions of Americans. Prescription drugs are yet another thing you can get when you go to Amazon.com. And if you’re an Amazon Prime member (aren’t we all?), then there are discounts and whip-fast delivery to be had. But, unlike in many other industries where Amazon can crush the competition on prices, its online pharmacy launch does not accomplish that. Brand name drugs, ones without and even with generic competition, are similarly priced to other American pharmacies. PharmacyChecker checked this out and has some good advice for consumers about Amazon’s pharmacy at Ask PharmacyChecker this week.

Overall, brand name drugs do not appear to be any cheaper using Amazon Pharmacy than what you can get using a discount card found on GoodRx or PharmacyChecker. How can they when the pharmaceutical industry has monopolistic pricing power over patented drugs? Amazon is subject to the same average wholesale acquisition costs as Walgreens. Not only do drug manufacturers have patents: they have special international trade protections where companies cannot import these same drugs from foreign wholesalers who charge much lower prices in Canada, not to mention the even lower prices in the UK and European Union countries – unless the drug manufacturers do the importing or authorize it. 

Quick case in point. Insulin access activist Laura Marston, who has type 1 diabetes and needs insulin to live, tweeted that for insulin lispro, an authorized generic Amazon charges $137 a vial, only $4 savings. Why would I bring up a generic drug when my point above was about brand drugs? A vial of brand Humalog runs about $30 in Canada. That’s why people travel to and buy prescription drugs online from Canada and other countries. 

Now I’ve thought about Jeff Bezos and Amazon for a long time when it comes to this issue. I’ve also thought a lot about Senator Bernie Sanders’s outspoken stances against Big Pharma and Amazon. It led me to write an article last year that posed the question of what would happen if Bezos and Sanders teamed up to bring about comprehensive drug importation reform, opening up the U.S. market to lower drug price. Not surprisingly, the article is called “Jeff Bezos should team up with Bernie Sanders to offer lower drug prices to Americans.” 

Let me pivot to Walgreens for a minute. The full name of Walgreens is actually Walgreens Boots Alliance. Walgreens was founded in the U.S.; Boots in the UK. It is now a multinational pharmacy retailer and wholesaler, operating various businesses in 25 countries and with stores in 11 countries, according to its website. They sell the exact same prescription drugs at a Boots UK pharmacy for a fraction of the cost you’d find at your local Walgreens on main street, USA! Not cool. Not fair. See: The Walgreens UK Pharmacy Connection and Importation

For about 20 years now, Senator Sanders, first in the House, and then in the Senate, has been calling for safe drug importation, understanding that ending the prohibitions on drug importation that do not actually protect safety (just Pharma profits) will infuse competition to lower prices here. Jeff Bezos is the ultimate back breaker of traditional, entrenched and protected interests. He should relish the opportunity to do this. Amazon has the money and lobbying power to make it work! 

Our country is horribly divided right now. A Bezos-Bernie effort on drug prices could bring us together and finally break Big Pharma’s hold on our captive pharmaceutical marketplace. As it stands now, Amazon Pharmacy has not done so.

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