Customs and Border Patrol priorities way out of whack

Friday, April 07, 2006 at 05:10 PM

You can tell a lot about any organization just by paying close attention to its actual priorities, rather than the priorities it announces to the public at press conferences.  Oddly, although we can't stop illegal immigration, or check shipping containers entering the country through the ports, we can assign who-knows how much manpower and effort to keeping out prescription drugs imported from Canada.

So, do you see anything wrong with having the US's immigration agency described as "trying to handle too many cases with too few employees," at the same time that our customs and border patrol agency is snooping through, and confiscating, packages of prescription drugs mailed from foreign countries to patients in the U.S.?

Both agencies are part of the Department of Homeland Security.

On April 6, ABC reported that Michael J. Maxwell, former director of the office of security and investigations of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, testified to congress that the agency was:

...riddled with fraud and corruption...a dysfunctional agency crippled by corruption both inside and outside that's trying to handle too many cases with too few employees...incapable of ensuring the security of our homeland.

Too few people to do the job.  Too much corruption for the too few people to do the job.

Yet, on March 26, the Boston Globe reported on a campaign begun last fall by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency to "crackdown on the cross-border discount trade" in prescription drugs.  During the first few months of the campaign, which commenced Nov. 17, two days after the enrollment period for the Medicare program opened, CBP seized at least 13,000 packages containing pharmaceuticals from mail inspection facilities across the country, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York.

Not surprisingly, there was some suspicion that the campaign, commencing when it did, was intended to discourage patients from bypassing the Medicare program's new prescription drug plan.  But an agency spokesperson denied this, saying that the change in the formerly lax enforcement policy was not related to the launch of the Medicare prescription drug benefit (although he couldn't say why the change had been made).

There were reports that the CBP had begun releasing the medications to the intended recipients, but other reports indicated that, instead of the ordered drugs, some patients got warning letters that they were violating the law, and notices that their medicine had been seized because "virtually all" drugs imported by individuals into the United States are unapproved for consumption here or are dispensed without a valid prescription, and that only drug makers can import prescription medications from foreign countries, even if the drugs were originally manufactured in the United States.

Borders across which almost anyone can come to the country, carrying ...anything they want to carry: OK, no need to staff up.  Ports into which you can ship just about anything without even having the container actually inspected: OK, no need to staff up.  Elderly and poor people desperately trying to find prescription drugs they can afford: we'll put a stop to that.

Priorities.  Physical safety no, drug company profits yes.  Drug impurities, never; nukes...well, we'll take our chances.  We can't protect everything, you know.