Physicians and Pharmacies Must Be Aware of the Dangers and Potential Penalties Associated with Importing Prescription Drugs

Oct 11, 2012   


As the price of healthcare continues to increase, healthcare practitioners have become more innovative and creative in their attempts to keep costs affordable for their patients. One technique which has increased in its popularity is doctors purchasing prescription drugs from foreign sources, particularly online pharmacies. However, while such techniques may provide for less expensive medical care, the importation of drugs from foreign sources can expose healthcare practitioners to a variety of criminal and civil penalties, and according to the FDA, can seriously endanger patients.

The risks associated with imported prescription drugs

For years, FDA has warned businesses and individuals about the risks associated with buying prescription drugs from foreign sources, specifically Canada. Recently, on September 28, 2012, the FDA issued a news release launching a national campaign called BeSafeRx that is designed to raise public awareness about the dangers of ordering prescription drugs from foreign unapproved sources. According to the FDA, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has found that less than three percent (3%) of online pharmacies meet the licensing requirements under federal law. A copy of the BeSafeRx announcement can be read here.

The FDA has taken the position that the dangers consumers face when purchasing foreign prescription drugs include consumption of expired, subpotent, contaminated or counterfeit drugs. Further, because foreign drugs may be manufactured for sale in non-English speaking countries, consumers may receive drugs without adequate directions for use. See South Florida Access to Affordable Prescription Drugs: Costs and Benefits of Alternative Solutions, Hearing before Subcomm. on Oversight and Investigations of H. Comm. on Energy and Commerce, 108th Cong. (2003).  Additionally, as many of these foreign drugs are produced in non-FDA approved facilities, the FDA cannot assure that they were manufactured in compliance with current good manufacturing practice (cGMP) standards. See generally, 21 U.S.C. § 360; 21 C.F.R. part 207.  Thus, per the FDA, consumers are exposed to numerous risks when purchasing drugs from internet pharmacies that dispense foreign drugs.

An example of the dangers consumers and healthcare practitioners face when importing foreign drugs played out earlier this year. In February, the FDA issued Warning Letters to numerous healthcare professionals that may have purchased counterfeit copies of the cancer drug Avastin from Canadian internet pharmaceutical distributors. According to reports, the fake Avastin, which was manufactured in unapproved facilities in Europe then distributed into the United States through Canadian internet pharmacy, contained no active cancer fighting ingredients. As a result of these events, healthcare practitioners who imported the counterfeit products may face criminal and civil penalties for having participated in adulteration and misbranding violations. See 21 U.S.C. § 351, 21 U.S.C. § 352.

More recently, on September 21, 2012, the FDA issued Warning Letters to over 4,100 identified websites that sell drugs or medical devices to American consumers. The Warning Letter, which was addressed to Canadadrugs, explained that these online pharmacy websites “offer unapproved and misbranded new drugs for sale” and requested each website to “immediately cease marketing violative drug products to United States consumers.” (To read the FDAs Warning Letter, click here.) Furthermore, the FDA sent notices to Registries, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and domain Name Registrars (NDRs) informing them of the websites allegedly violative practices.

Additionally, on October 4, 2012, the FDA announced the details of Operation Pangea V, a global effort to combat the online sale and distribution of potentially counterfeit and illegal medical products. For the full text of the FDAs press release, please click here. In executing Operation Pangea V, the FDA collaborated with INTERPOL, the World Customs Organization, Permanent Forum of International Pharmaceutical Crime, Heads of Medicines Agencies Working Group of Enforcement Officers, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency of the United Kingdom, the Irish Medicines Board, the London Metropolitan Police, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies, and the national health and law enforcement agencies from 100 other participating countries. The cooperative investigations conducted by these law enforcement, customs, and regulatory authorities resulted in civil and criminal charges, seizure of illegal produces, and removal of websites. For more information regarding Operation Pangea V, please see our previous report here.

The following discussion contains an outline of the penalties practitioners may face when importing foreign pharmaceutical drugs. This outline, however, is not exhaustive, as different penalties may be applicable to different importation activities under different circumstances.

1. Criminal Penalties under the FDCA

Under the FDCA, it is unlawful to import unapproved, misbranded, and adulterated drugs into the United States. This includes the importation of foreign versions of U.S. approved pharmaceuticals as well as those drugs that are manufactured in the United States, exported to other countries, and then subsequently reimported.

Two of the more typical FDCA violations which healthcare practitioners may face as a result of importing misbranded drugs are: 1) introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of any drug that is adulterated or misbranded; and 2) the receipt in interstate commerce of any drug that is adulterated or misbranded, and the delivery or proffered delivery thereof for pay or otherwise. See 21 U.S.C. § 331 (a), (c). The penalties and punishments associated with these crimes are governed by 21 U.S.C. § 333 and depend on whether the government charges the defendant with committing a violation “with the intent to defraud or mislead.”

Pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 333(a)(1), a first misbranding violation is a strict liability offense and is a misdemeanor. Thus, no criminal intent need be established by the Government in order to sustain a conviction. However, 21 U.S.C. § 333(c) provides several good-faith exceptions, of which, if the healthcare practitioner qualifies, would absolve them from liability.

The maximum sentence provided by statute for a violation of 21 U.S.C. 331(a) or (c) is 1-year imprisonment, a supervised release of one year; and a maximum fine not in excess of $100,000. 21 U.S.C. § 333(a)(1); 18 U.S.C. § 3571. In addition, section 2N2.1 is the Sentencing Guideline applicable to misdemeanor violations of biological products, devices, cosmetics, and usually used in FDA prosecutions of statutes and regulations relating to foods, drugs, agricultural products.

However, if a healthcare practitioner is charged with violating either 331(a) or (c) with the intent to defraud or mislead, enhanced penalties do exist and such cases are prosecuted as felonies. The penalties associated with a violation of 21 U.S.C. § 333(a)(2) are a term of imprisonment of not more than 3 years and a fine of not more than $250,000. See 21 U.S.C. § 333(a)(2); 18 U.S.C. § 3571.

A violation of 21 U.S.C. § 333(a)(2) is a specific intent crime, see United States v. Mitcheltree. The specific intent requirement in § 333(a)(2) requires:

  1. Proof of misbranding; and
  2. Proof of intent to mislead or defraud “which is connected to the misbranding violation.”

Id. In other words, because “knowledge of the essential nature of the alleged fraud is a component of the intent to defraud, a defendant cannot act with an intent to mislead or defraud under § 333(a)(2) without some knowledge of the misbranding.” Id. (citing United States v. Hiland, 909 F.2d 1114, 1128 (8th Cir. 1990)).

As previously explained, “felony criminal responsibility requires a knowing violation with the specific intent to defraud or mislead.” Mitcheltree, 940 F.2d at 1350. A violation of 333(a)(2) “may be proved with facts indicating knowledge of the misbranding activity and a concomitant intent to defraud or mislead the FDA or its state counterpart.” Id.; see also United States v. Patwardhan,422 Fed. Appx. 614 (9th Cir. 2011); United States v. Bradshaw, 840 F.2d 871 (11th Cir. 1988) (sustaining a conviction under 333(a)(2) where defendant: 1) knowingly sold steroids without a prescription for unapproved use; 2)mislabeled the steroids as vitamins to avoid detection; and 3) made affirmative misrepresentations and omissions to state drug authorities while attempting to obtain a drug wholesalers permit.).

Additionally, while “the cases construing § 333(a)(2) have ordinarily been based on a sellers intent to defraud or mislead purchasers,” a prosecution under 333(a)(2) may be “based upon an intent to mislead or defraud not only natural persons, but also government agencies if there is evidence that a defendant consciously sought to mislead drug regulatory authorities such as the FDA or a similar governmental agency.” Mitcheltree, 940 F.2d at 1347, 1348 (10th Cir. 1991). As described by the Court in Mitcheltree, “if the government proceeds on this theory, there must be a demonstrated link between the § 331 violation and an intent to mislead or defraud an identifiable regulatory agency involved in consumer protection. Id. at 1349 (emphasis in original); see also United States v. Cattle King Packing Co., 793 F.2d 232 (10th Cir. 1986) (finding that the specific intent requirement of the statute could be satisfied by a showing that defendant intended to mislead or defraud the government agency charged with federal meat inspection); Bradshaw, 840 F.2d 871 (11th Cir. 1988) (finding defendant could satisfy the specific intent requirement of the statute by showing that defendant intended to mislead or defraud state agency in charge permitting and licensing). Additionally, “similar governmental agency” is interpreted to include agencies of foreign governments. See United States v. Industrial Laboratories, 456 F.2d 908 (10th Cir. 1972) (finding that the specific intent requirement of the statute could be satisfied by a showing that defendants intended to mislead or defraud Canadian authorities).

2. Additional criminal and civil liabilities

In addition to violations of the FDCA, practitioners who import foreign pharmaceuticals can face a variety of other criminal penalties. For example, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services fact sheet, Medicare will not pay for health care or supplies obtained outside the U.S., which includes prescription drugs imported from Canada. 42 U.S.C. § 1395y. As such, doctors could face criminal and civil liability for knowingly importing drugs in violation of the FDCA and submitting a claim to Medicare for the illegally imported drugs.

Such charges may include:

  • Health care fraud for defrauding or obtaining money from a health care benefit program. 18 U.S.C. § 1347. Notably, the doctor does not need to have actual knowledge or specific intent to violate this section. Violations of the health care fraud statute are punishable by fines or imprisonment of no more than 10 years, or both.
  • False claims for knowingly presenting a false claim for payment or approval to the government. 31 U.S.C. § 3729. Violations for false claims are punishable by civil penalty of not less than $5,000 and not more than $10,000.Further, healthcare practitioners could be subject to various fraud charges related to importing drugs from overseas. Such charges may include:
  • Mail and wire fraud for the use of mails or wire communications in furtherance of a scheme to defraud. See 18 U.S.C. § 1341; 18 U.S.C. § 1343.  Violations of the mail and wire fraud statutes are punishable by imprisonment of no more than 20 years, or fines, or both.
  • Bank fraud for obtaining money held by a financial institution through false representations pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 1344. Violations of the bank fraud statute are punishable by no more than $1,000,000 or imprisonment of no more than 30 years, or both. Section 2B1.1 is the Federal Sentencing Guideline applicable to fraud perpetrated by individuals. Under this guideline, although the “victims loss is usually used as the proxy for the severity of thr crime, the offenders gain, i.e. the proceeds from the illicit activity, can provide an adequate, alternative method of gauging the crimes just penalty when the loss is incalculable. See United States v. Haas, 171 F.2d 259, 269, 270 (5th Cir. 1999) (finding that while “the loss sustained by either the FDA or Haass customers is, for all practical purposes, incalculablethe district court can, however, estimate the gain that Haas received from defrauding the FDA. Thus, Haass gain from his fraudulent importation scheme appears to have been the monies received [from his company] by way of salary and profits.”). Therefore, under the sentencing guideline, the more money involved in a fraud scheme involving  the sale or distribution of misbranded or adulterated drugs, the greater the potential sentence.
  • Smuggling or clandestinely introducing goods because of failure to comply with other statutes. 18 U.S.C. § 545. Violations are punishable by fines or imprisonment of no more than 30 years, or both.Healthcare practitioners must also be aware of the potential liabilities they face if they engage in the re-importation of drugs.
  • Drug re-importation involves exporting U.S. manufactured prescription drugs to a foreign country, then subsequently importing the same drug back into the U.S. by someone other than the U.S. manufacturer, and carries additional penalties under the FDCA. The  FDCA prohibits anyone other than the U.S. manufacturer of a drug to re-import the drug into the U.S. even if the drug was approved and manufactured in the U.S; 21 U.S.C. § 381 (d)(1).The FDA has found that, because it does not have oversight over other countries drug distribution systems, insufficient safeguards in foreign handling and shipping exist to prevent the introduction and retail sale of substandard, ineffective, or counterfeit drugs. 59 Fed. Reg. 11842 (March 14, 1994). Thus, products that are re-imported by anyone other than the manufacturer will be denied entry into the U.S. 21 U.S.C. § 381(d)(3)(B).If a business or individual knowingly violates 21 U.S.C. § 381 (d)(1) by causing prescription drugs manufactured in the U.S. to be re-imported by persons other than the manufacturer of the drug, they may be subject to criminal liability consisting of a maximum of 10 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine. 21 U.S.C. § 333(b)(1)(A).It is important to note that those who aid and abet in a criminal violation of the FDCA, or conspire to violate the FDCA, can also be found criminally liable. 18 U.S.C. §§ 2, 371. Thus, businesses or individuals that import drugs from foreign sources in violation of the FDCA could potentially be charged with these offenses as well.

3. Exclusion from participation in federal health care programs

In addition to criminal penalties, practitioners may also face various administrative penalties. For example, 42 U.S.C. §1320a-7b(a) empowers the Secretary of Health and Human Services to exclude certain convicted individuals from participation in any “Federal Health Care Program.” In particular, § 1320a-7(b)(1)(a) authorizes the Secretary to exclude individuals convicted of a criminal offense consisting of a misdemeanor relating to fraud, theft, embezzlement, breach of fiduciary responsibility, or other financial misconduct in connection with the delivery of a health care item or service.

Additionally, § 1320a-7(b)(3) authorizes the Secretary to exclude any individual who has been convicted of a criminal offense consisting of a misdemeanor relating to the unlawful manufacture, distribution, prescription, or dispensing of a controlled substance. See Friedman v. Sebelius, Case No. 11-5028 (D.C. Cir. July 27, 2012).  Further, “items and services furnished, ordered, or prescribed by [an excluded person] will not be reimbursed under Medicare, Medicaid and all other Federal health care programs until [that person] is reinstated by the OIG.” 42 C.F.R. § 1001.2. For more information regarding exclusion from federal health care programs under 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b, please see our previous report here.


Healthcare practitioners are in a never-ending struggle to control the costs of patient care, but must nevertheless ensure that the methods they choose comply with federal law. For more information regarding the importation of drugs from foreign sources, our FDA litigation practice, or how to ensure that your business maintains regulatory compliance, contact Fuerst Ittleman David & Joseph PL at (305) 350-5690 or