A British pharmacy chain has launched an online drugstore in Maine, taking advantage of a controversial first-in-the-nation law that allows Maine residents to buy medicines from some foreign countries.

Touting “British drugs at British prices,” the Great British Drugstore sells brand-name prescription medications by mail order at prices up to 70 percent lower than in the U.S. The company plans to announce its Maine launch on Wednesday afternoon at a news conference in Portland.

“What we’re trying to do is target people who need to access medicines who can’t afford them,” said Mary O’Brien, managing director for Great British Drugstore.

Operated by the British pharmacy company Weldricks, an independently owned chain with 61 locations throughout the United Kingdom, the site targets only Maine consumers.

While some Canadian pharmacies already market to Maine residents under the landmark law, Great British Drugstore is the first U.K.-based company making a big push in Maine.

Passed in June 2013, the law allows Maine residents to buy prescription drugs from Internet pharmacies in Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.

Supporters of the law contend it will lower Mainers’ health care costs by providing access to less expensive medications. Mainers face the fifth-highest health care expenditures in the country, spending $8,521 per capita each year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But last fall, several Maine pharmacy organizations joined with a major pharmaceutical trade group to challenge the law, arguing it jeopardizes the safety of the nation’s prescription drug supply and opens the door to counterfeit and tainted medications. The lawsuit lost steam in May when a federal judge dismissed PhRMA, a national trade group representing drug companies, as a plaintiff.

The suit has continued, however, on the basis that the law allows unfair foreign competition. The plaintiffs seek to ultimately invalidate the law, which took effect on Oct. 9, 2013.

Kenneth McCall, president of the Maine Pharmacy Association, a party to the suit, urged Maine consumers to view the new site with skepticism. The National Association of Pharmacy Boards estimates that 98 percent of online pharmacies fail to meet U.S. standards, he said.

“Are you getting what your doctor prescribed?” he said. “There’s no guarantee here.”

Maine’s new law and the subsequent lawsuit have particularly re-ignited concerns about importing drugs from Canada. A 2005 U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigation found that most drugs ordered from Canadian-fronted websites originated in other countries.

Foreign pharmacies aren’t required to apply for a Maine license, provided they meet their own country’s regulatory requirements. Great British Drugstore is licensed in the U.K. and U.K.-registered pharmacists dispense its medications, O’Brien said. Its parent company already operates a mail-order pharmacy business overseas, in addition to its brick-and-mortar locations.

While some of the Canadian sites have stirred concerns, all of Great British Drugstore’s medications are sourced from U.K. wholesalers supplied directly by drug manufacturers, O’Brien said.

“We’re not really comparing ourselves to the Canadian websites that are sourcing from … India, Mauritius, from Turkey, from all different places,” she said, adding that there’s “absolutely zero potential for counterfeits” in the site’s system.

The Maine Pharmacy Association, joined by the Retail Association of Maine, highlighted U.K. regulations that prohibit U.K. pharmacists from supplying medicines for prescriptions based in the U.S.

“Great British Drug Store is violating both U.S. and U.K. laws,” the groups said in a statement Wednesday.

O’Brien said both U.S. and U.K. legal counsel consulted with U.K. regulators and have signed off on the operation. Customers must fill out a health questionnaire on the site, which will be reviewed by a U.K. physician with 20 years of experience, Dr. Helen Webberley. If Webberley finds no problems, she will recreate each prescription for the U.K., O’Brien said.

“Patients are legally allowed to import, we’re legally allowed to export, we’re legally allowed to dispense,” O’Brien said.

By selling medications to Mainers at prices patients pay in Britain — which negotiates drug costs under the publicly funded National Health Service — Great British Drugstore can offer steep discounts, O’Brien said.

For example, Great British Drugstore markets a pack of 28 40-milligram pills of Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering medication, at $108.40. The same pills cost more than double that at pharmacies including CVS, Walmart and Walgreens, according to the site.

Maine consumers may log onto the site to order their medications, then upload, fax or scan and email their prescription, O’Brien explained. Each order is then prepared for dispensing, but held back until Great British Drugstore receives the original prescription by mail at its Portland office, she said.

Consumers must click a button to confirm they live in Maine. The site won’t verify residency but ships drugs only to a Maine address.

Great British Drugstore ships orders within 48 hours, much shorter than the 21 days often offered by Canadian-fronted pharmacies, O’Brien said.

The site can sell any brand-name or generic drug approved by the U.S. FDA. So far, about 200 medications are listed, with thousands more due to be added as the site gets off the ground, O’Brien said. For now, consumers can contact the online pharmacy if they can’t find the medication they need, she said.

“In theory we can supply anything that a prescription is presented to us for,” she said.

Great British Drugstore, which expects to eventually employ three people locally, has modest growth plans in Maine, where retail pharmacies sold nearly $1.4 billion worth of prescription drugs in 2013. The online pharmacy seeks to provide an alternative for Mainers who want lower-cost drugs, O’Brien said.

“We don’t expect that every single prescription in Maine is going to come to us,” she said.

That’s an appropriate assumption, given that 86 percent of all drugs dispensed by U.S. pharmacies are generic medications that usually cost less here than overseas, said Gabriel Levitt, vice president of PharmacyChecker.com, which evaluates and verifies online pharmacies and compares prescription drug prices.

“The overwhelming majority of pharmacy customers will not be shopping from Canada or the U.K.,” he said.

Maine residents struggling with the “crazy burden of high drug prices here” would be “perfectly safe buying from licensed pharmacies in the U.K.,” he said.

Great British Drugstore has applied to Pharmacy Checker’s verification program and the review is ongoing, Levitt said.

“What stands out with Great British Drugstore is that it will only be filling prescription orders sourced from the U.K., whereas many international online pharmacies, including safe ones in our program, fill orders through licensed pharmacies in countries that are not exempted under Maine law,” he said.

But McCall remains unconvinced that the new site is safe for Maine consumers. Foreign online pharmacies that operate outside the purview of the FDA and state regulators provide little accountability, potentially leaving customers with no recourse if they order drugs that harm them, he said.

“You can make any claims you want online,” McCall said.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...