Stateline Story

Pawlenty Pitches Prescription Plan to Congress

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) Thursday said the federal government should allow the Gopher state to move forward with plans to help its residents buy prescription drugs from Canada: "Let us try," he said.

Pawlenty is the second governor to travel to Washington, D.C. to ask the federal government to remove legal hurdles to importing lower-priced medications from abroad, following Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in September. Pawlenty's visit shows the growing interest of governors, state legislators and mayors in the issue.

Pawlenty said he hopes to have a Web site up and running by early next year that would give residents information on how to order less expensive medications from reputable, licensed Canadian pharmacies that negotiate discounts and agree to be reviewed by the state Department of Human Services. The site will also let consumers know if there is a lower cost generic alternative they should ask their doctor about, he told members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

"Importation from Canada and perhaps other developed countries is not the ideal solution. It is probably not the long-term solution, but it is in the spirit of trying something," Pawlenty said. After establishing the Web site, Pawlenty said he hopes to share savings with state workers through such incentives as waiving co-payments.

"If this works in Minnesota, it's going to work in every northern state and sooner or later it's going to work in every other state," said U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Commerce committee. McCain applauded the governor's plan but encouraged Pawlenty to garner more state support by getting legislative approval, something Pawlenty said he'd be willing to pursue during the state's next legislative session, which beings in February 2004.

Calling it the "prescription drug equivalent of the Boston Tea Party," Pawlenty said the biggest hurdle to implementing his plan are warnings from the pharmaceutical industry and the Food and Drug Administration, which say the practice of re-importing virtually all medicine that U.S. manufacturers have sold to Canadian pharmacies is illegal and unsafe.

"My first response to that is show me the dead Canadians. Where are the dead Canadians?" Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty said the FDA's position on the Minnesota plan is unclear. "If they sue me, I am willing to be sued. If they want to throw me in jail, then that's something I at least have to give some pause to," he said.

The FDA maintains that it is premature to predict any potential enforcement actions. FDA Associate Commissioner of Regulatory Affairs John Taylor said the agency will not endorse a "buyer beware" approach. Taylor said the agency is willing to sit down with the governor and discuss the state's plan.

"It would be a lot easier if we could get broad federal authority," to move forward with the plan," Pawlenty told reporters after the hearing, conceding he came to the nation's capital with low expectations.

Pawlenty told Stateline.org that he'd spoken with North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R), who has also expressed interest in the plan, but said he's going forward under the guise of the current law and not waiting for the federal government, other states or his Legislature to take action.

"It seems like the other governors are really counting on Congress to act," Pawlenty told Stateline.org. Pawlenty doesn't expect that this year, especially as Congress is poised to pass a Medicare bill that would overhaul the 38-year-old federal health care program for the elderly and extend prescription drug coverage to senior citizens.