As Winter Texans flock across border for cheaper meds, experts warn: buyer beware

HARLINGEN — Like thousands of Winter Texans, Ruthann Tabler crosses the border to save money at Mexico’s pharmacies.

“I’m glad for it,” Tabler, a resident at Park Place Estates RV Resort, said Friday. “It’s very important because many go. I bet half the park goes.”

Across the border in Nuevo Progreso, Tabler buys Metformin, a medication that controls her diabetes.

While she pays $18 for 60 tablets at the pharmacy, the same amount costs $70 — with her health insurance — in the United States, Tabler, from Holton, Mich., said as she inspected home-made quilts at the park’s activity hall.

“I can get the brand-name for far less than in the U.S.,” she said. “It comes straight from the manufacturer.”

For decades, Winter Texans have helped turn this tiny Mexican town into a tourist stop lined with rows of pharmacies, dental clinics and hair salons.

Jim and Charlotte Miller stop at a pharmacy to buy amoxicillin when they go to the dentist office in Nuevo Progreso.

“If things weren’t so pricey in the U.S., we would buy them here,” Charlotte Miller, a retired day care worker from Medford, Wis., said as she strolled the park’s quiet street.

Of the 106,000 Winter Texans in the Rio Grande Valley, 85.3 percent reported going to Mexico more than five times during their stay, said Penny Simpson, a marketing professor and director of the Business and Tourism Research Center at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Of those, she said, 42.2 percent buy prescriptions there.

“There are a lot of senior residents who go to Mexico to get their meds,” said Anna Elder, director of marketing and sales at Fun N Sun RV Resort in San Benito. “There are a lot of people who can’t afford to buy their meds in the United States. One medication can cost $100 (in the United States) and in Mexico it costs $10, maybe $20. Some people even buy their insulin there.”

Buyer beware

But Marv Shepherd, a leading authority on the sale of Mexican prescription drugs, warns some doctors turn Mexico’s border towns into “prescription mills.”

Just because a medication carries a brand name does not mean it’s the real thing, Shepherd, professor emeritus at the University of Texas’ College of Pharmacy, said.

“The biggest concern is if it’s a legitimate source,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd warns of so-called “counterfeit drugs.”

“You may find a drug with the same name but a different manufacturer,” he said. “I would be cautious of that. If it doesn’t have the same name, you’re taking a risk.”

In Mexico, the government estimates 16 to 20 percent of drugs are counterfeit, he said.

“I would expect that the counterfeit drug problem would be higher near the border — higher margins from farmacias,” he said

Meanwhile, generic drugs don’t carry such a risk — because counterfeits bring in little money, Shepherd said.

“Generic drugs are pretty standard across international lines,” he said.

Border issue

Year-round, many Valley residents cross the border to buy prescription drugs, Elizabeth Urbina, coordinator of Communities Against Drug Abuse, or CASA, said.

“It’s so easy for people to get just about anything,” Urbina said. “It’s very prevalent. The accessibility we have down here is very unique. Being by the border is a world of its own.”

Urbina said some pharmacies hawk tranquilizers such as Xanax.

“I see it all the time,” she said. “You walk across and the first thing they offer you is Xanax. They try to lure you in all these places. They all try to give you a better deal than the last one.”