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Fox Chapel woman pleads guilty to repeatedly smuggling anti-cancer drugs into U.S.

| Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, 2:06 p.m.

A Fox Chapel couple traveled to Europe five or six times a year to buy prescription drugs wholesale and smuggle them home for sale at a family-owned pharmacy, prosecutors say.

Robin W. Simon, 45, pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court to unlawfully importing the drugs and will be sentenced on Dec. 20. The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to say why her husband, Steven Simon, 48, was not charged.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Shaun Sweeney said the couple paid a drug wholesaler in Ireland at least $1.4 million for medication that would have cost “substantially more” if purchased from wholesalers in the United States.

One frequently ordered drug was Xeloda, a treatment for breast, colon and colorectal cancer, he said.

The Simon family has owned Stanton Negley Drug Co. in Highland Park for more than 30 years. A pharmacist there referred questions to Paul Boas, Robin Simon's attorney, who could not be reached.

Donald W. Light, a fellow at Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, said it's difficult to estimate how much profit the pharmacy realized from European purchases.

For specialty drugs such as cancer medications, the European price can be as low as one-third of the U.S. price, said Light, who studies the pharmaceutical industry.

“The U.S. is the only affluent country that allows companies to set their own prices — particularly for cancer drugs — as high as they want,” he said.

Medicare is required to reimburse companies at those prices for any drug the Food and Drug Administration approves, and most private insurers follow suit, Light said.

Most European countries have drug review boards that determine the value of drugs and set recommendations that insurers tend to follow, he said.

Federal law makes it illegal for people to buy drugs in Europe and bring them into the United States — even drugs made in the United States and exported, he said.

Sweeney said the couple began ordering from United Drug Wholesalers in Ireland in 2000, shipping drugs to their business. Customs officials intercepted a package in October 2000, and the FDA warned the couple that they were breaking the law, he said.

They were not charged with a crime or fined, but that December, “the Simons began to travel frequently to Europe, where they would take delivery of shipments from United Drug at the hotels at which they stayed,” Sweeney said.

In seven years, they bought prescription drugs worth about $1.4 million from the Irish company, he said.

In July 2007, a hotel maid in Portugal spotted discarded packaging from a drug shipment and notified police.

When the Simons learned Portuguese police and the Irish Medicines Board were investigating, they stopped ordering from United Drug and started buying from Heathrow in the United Kingdom, Sweeney said.

Customs officials intercepted two packages in September 2008.

A search of the pharmacy and the Simons' home turned up documents detailing purchases, he said.

Roche Laboratories in New Jersey manufactured the drugs.

Investigators found no patients who were harmed by the illegally imported drugs.

Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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