Buying Prescription Medicines In Mexico
Published: December 1999
The Mexican newspaper Proceso recently reported that sales of prescription drugs to tourists had doubled in the last six years. Paralleling the growth of warehouse type stores in the United States, huge discount pharmacy chains have sprouted all over Mexico. In border cities for example it is common to encounter four or five farmacias in a two-block stretch of the tourist zone. As an experienced medicine shopper Id like to share some tips about getting the best value for your dollar.
First Things First
If you havent yet done so, be sure to read Part I of "Buying Prescription Medicines In Mexico".
Dont put off contacting your doctor about obtaining permission to purchase your medicine in Mexico. If the doctor says "No," then thats it, end of story. You may be on a drug that is an ultra sensitive life-support medication.
If you do buy your prescriptions in Mexico, it would be a good idea to show the medicines to your doctor upon your return. Like most other citizens of the US, your doctor probably suspects that Mexican drug stores are fraught with counterfeit merchandise and inferior quality medicines. The main issue is to separate simple bias from the genuine danger of countermanding the doctors explicit order for you to use only a specific U.S. brand medicine. When in doubt, Dont take chances!
Shop & Compare
Shopping for medicines in Mexico is much like grocery shopping in the United States. Some discount stores have better prices than others on certain medicines. IMSS and ISSSTE health insurance institutes have hundreds of pharmacies located within their retail stores which are open to the public in larger towns and cities. Supermarket chains such as Gigante have remodeled many of their stores to include retail pharmacies. Last but not least are the chain pharmacies such as Fenix, Del Sol, Doble, and others that use vast multi-store buying power to pass along quantity savings. Sometime in the future I expect major Mexican pharmacy chains to post current medicine prices and availability on the internet.
Obtaining A Price Quote
The only way to know for sure that your medicines are available in Mexico, and at a price attractive enough to afford a trip, is to telephone a farmacia in Mexico and ask. Before you reach for the receiver, some preparation is in order. Many tourist oriented pharmacies have at least one salesperson who speaks acceptable English. However when you call, that person may be busy with a customer, off on a break or suffering from an acute case of laryngitis. To clarify things, having a FAX machine nearby and at the ready is indispensable. If spelling your prescription for Acetaltehydraphenadrenaphodaline gets hung up on the vowels, sending the formula name by FAX will instantly clarify things. Just dont expect them to FAX or telephone you back, the burden of communication rests on your shoulders. Calls to Mexico typically cost fifty cents a minute, definitely affordable if it enables you to save several hundred dollars. Before you hang up, ask the salesperson about using your credit card for purchases (see Paying For Your Purchases below).
Many larger farmacias re-brand common medicines and sell them in quantity , usually in a large plastic "frasco" (jar). Non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs such as stomach acid inhibitors, blood pressure medications, and a host of other "maintenance medications" are commonly re-branded (some of which are available only in proprietary brand-name form in the U.S.). It is common to save as much as forty percent off the brand name price when purchasing bulk generic drugs (example: Zantac (Ranitidine) 300 mg. at twenty cents a pill). Many medicines destined for sale in United States pharmacies are manufactured in Mexico (also Central America and the Caribbean). For some reason, I am leery of buying medicine that is manufactured in the Far East. Perhaps it is because Mexicos Health Ministry wields immense power and authority over domestic drug quality and sales, but has little if any poder (power) over the quality of imported medicines.
Fecha De Caducidad
Fecha de Caducidad means "Date Of Expiration". All medicines are assigned and marked with a date by which they should be consumed. Some medicines are more sensitive to aging than others. A call to your local U.S. pharmacy will reveal just how sensitive your particular medicines are to aging. When talking to your pharmacy, I would, however, conveniently omit the fact that you intend on purchasing your medicines in Mexico (U.S. pharmacists understandably tend to get a little "testy" over this).
Dont blithely ignore expiration dates: over-age tetracycline for instance turns to poison which can be lethal if ingested! Other medications simply fade in strength (Tthyroid for example), or even gain strength (heart, blood-pressure medicines) if stored too long. On the other hand, many medicines remain useable for two years or more if stored correctly (usually in a dark, cool, and dry location).
In any event, most medicines are date coded to show at least a years worth of storage time available. Always check the "Fecha de Caducidad" on each bottle or box before it is rung up at the cash register.
Mailing Medicine To The United States
Medicines cannot be mailed or shipped from Mexico to the United States. U.S. Customs and the U.S. Postal Service inspect all arriving packages and medicines are excluded from the list of allowable items. To be specific, neither the pharmacy nor private individuals can circumvent this regulation. Only DEA registered pharmaceutical companies can legally ship medicine into the U.S. (Similarly the Mexican Aduana will seize U.S. medicines arriving in the mail destined for a Mexican address).
Carrying Medicines Into The United States
U.S. Customs is spot specific on the rules governing the importation of medicine by individuals into the United States. You must declare your medicines at U.S. Customs. You may be asked if the medicines are for individual (your) personal consumption. Only the person who is to consume the medicine is allowed to be in possession of the medicine upon entering the United States. The following regulation is applicable everywhere in the United States: "It is illegal (a felony) to sell, give away, dispense, or transfer possession of prescription medicine".
I have carried as much as ten pounds of various pills into U.S. Customs and placed them on the counter for inspection. "Are these for your personal consumption?" would be a typical query by an uniformed U.S. Customs agent. "Yes" I reply "This medicine is for my personal consumption". I rarely receive a reply other than "Have a nice day".
Warning: Large amounts of Class II, III, and IV (refer to part I for details) restricted medicines are naturally open for a more detailed scrutiny at Customs. Carry an old U.S. prescription labeled for the controlled medicine, a copy of a prescription written for that specific medicine, the store receipt where you purchased the controlled medicine in Mexico and a photocopy of the Mexican Doctors prescription (see Part I Getting A Mexican Prescription) for the medicine. Suspicious quantities of any medication will be targeted for a closer look, so I would refrain from purchasing more than seven or eight months supply. Common sense applies: Why would a normal person need three hundred doses of penicillin?
Are The Savings Worth The Hassle?
It depends on a lot of things. First, youve got to telephone a Mexican pharmacy and ask if your medicine or medicines are available in Mexico. Second, youll need a price quote. Third, factor transportation costs to and from Mexico (air, bus car, hitchhike) and then see if the savings are worth it. Border cities are the least expensive to access in terms of transportation costs but intrinsically they are the least attractive. Why not fly to Mazatlan or Puerto Vallarta and combine a vacation into your quest?
Tip: Because there are few discount pharmacies in Huatulco, Los Cabos (La Paz, Loreto), Cozumel, and Ixtapa, these resorts are not good destination choices as far as the "medicine minded" are concerned. Of the border cities, Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana are the best choices. Nogales, Mexicali, and Piedras Negras are good choices. Mexico City is generally regarded as the medicine mother lode of Mexico, but flights from the U.S. arent cheap. Cancun would be the obvious best choice from the U.S. East Coast. There are five discount farmacias in Cancun.
An Example Of A Trip To Tijuana
SouthWest Air frequently offers round-trip fares of $79 from Seattle to San Diego. The San Diego Trolley ride costs $3 (keep your transfer stub) and the airport shuttle $1 (also transferable). The red and white cross border bus costs a dollar each way. Once across the border there are six pharmacies within a one and one half-block walk, and a Mexican combination plate with beverages will cost you less than eight dollars. Sometimes I splurge and allow for a three-dollar haircut and fifty-cent shoeshine.
Paying For Your Purchases
Almost without exception large discount farmacias accept dollars. Better yet, almost all offer a very favorable exchange rate (Dont bother to buy pesos unless you intend to seek increased buying power at an IMSS or ISSSTE farmacia, Their peso dollar exchange rates are sometimes less than optimum). Currency, travellers cheques, and the "Big Three" credit cards are accepted by most independent chains (but not by IMSS nor ISSSTE farmacias).
Ask about credit card acceptance when telephoning for prices and medicine availability. Be aware however, if for some reason the farmacia runs into a "snag" while processing your credit card purchase, it can foul-up a carefully planned timetable. If you plan to pay with U.S.currency or pesos, I strongly urge the use of a hidden money belt for your own peace-of-mind. Hauling cash around is a bit riskier, but its a sure thing as far as expediting your way past the cash register and back to the airport.
If I am purchasing several hundred dollars worth of medicine Im never too bashful to ask the salesperson or cashier if I can have an additional discount on top of the multiple discounts that are already in effect. A couple of years ago I did this and received a whopping twenty percent off a seven hundred dollar purchase.