Stateline Story

Midwest Governors Eye Canadian Rx Imports

  • October 28, 2003
  • By Erin Madigan

Several Midwestern governors and legislators from seven states are pressing the federal government to remove legal hurdles to importing lower-priced prescription drugs from Canada.

Leading the pack is Illinois Gov. Ron Blagojevich (D). He made public a study Monday (10/27) showing that his state could save nearly $91 million a year by buying prescription drugs for state workers and retirees from America's northern neighbor.

Blagojevich has lobbied officials in Washington, D.C. and wrote letters and placed phone calls to 49 other governors' offices to generate support, press secretary Abby Ottenhoff said.

He has also brought the issue to the World Wide Web. Blagojevich has launched an online petition www.affordabledrugs.il.gov to pressure the FDA to work with states to ensure safety of imported drugs.

"Certainly, here in the heartland, governors are very aware of the fact that this is such a critical issue for people across the board," Ottenhoff said. Those governors include Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), she said.

Vilsack confirmed his interest by signing Blagojevich's petition Oct. 15, and commissioning a 30-day cost-savings study of his own; the results of which are expected soon.

On the Republican side, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty recently unveiled a five-point plan that in part would enable state residents to buy U.S.-made drugs online, direct from Canadian pharmacies at prices negotiated by the state.

Officials from the Minnesota Department of Human Services hope to launch the program in early 2004, said Brian Osberg, Minnesota's assistant commissioner of health care.

"The state would not be in the business of purchasing drugs. We would just facilitate someone's interest in purchasing drugs from Canada. There is a law regarding the prohibition of re-importation and we're certainly not going to challenge that law," Osberg said.

States got good news Oct. 23 when FDA associate commissioner William Hubbard told The Boston Globe that the agency is "not considering legal action against cities or states," but will pursue legal action against "businesses that sell commercial quantities of drugs."

Health policy experts said this concession was not necessarily a green light for states to pursue re-importation plans. "What (Hubbard) was saying is that (the FDA) is not going to take legal action against individual state officials or against states or local governments as a whole, but they're not trying to facilitate their programs either," said Joy Johnson Wilson, director of the health committee and federal affairs at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"Even with this decision by the FDA, there still remains a lot of work to do in the area of high prescription drug costs," Vilsack said in a statement after learning of the FDA official's comment. "However, public officials throughout the country who have worked diligently to keep pressure on the FDA and Congress to address the re-importation issue should be credited with having an impact."

The governors are clearly reflecting public sentiment. A recent poll by The Washington Post and ABC News found that a majority of Americans said they want Congress to legalize the importation of lower-priced medicines from Canada.

Legislators in Illinois, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont introduced measures relating to importation in 2003, though none have been signed into law.

The Maine and Vermont legislatures passed non-binding resolutions in March requesting that pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline and others stop boycotting Canadian wholesalers who sell to pharmacies which re-import to the United States. Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan are looking into whether the company's actions violate state and federal anti-trust laws.

A Massachusetts bill introduced by state Sen. Jarrett T. Barrios (D) would establish an Office of Pharmacy Purchasing to advise citizens ihow to purchase prescription drugs from abroad.

And in Illinois, state Rep. Jack Franks (D) is sponsoring two bills he hopes will be considered in November. The first, similar to the Massachusetts measure, would give citizens information on how to acquire drugs from outside the state. The second would allow Illinois to accredit out-of-state pharmacies.

The FDA and pharmaceutical industry officials say the practice of re-importing virtually all medicine that U.S. manufacturers have sold to Canadian pharmacies are illegal and unsafe.

Of the safety warnings, Vilsack told Stateline.org in an interview: "I think it's a tactic to scare folks."

Tags: Health