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Support Grows for Legalizing Imported Drugs

Governors, members of Congress, seniors oppose FDA policy

THURSDAY, Oct. 16, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Despite the U.S. government's continued crackdown on imported prescription drugs, support for the cross-border trade is rapidly gaining momentum -- much of it from elected officials.

Governors, members of Congress and millions of senior citizens and their powerhouse lobby -- AARP -- want to open the border to let Americans legally buy prescription drugs from Canada.

The reason: Drugs from Canada, even those manufactured by U.S. companies and re-imported, cost considerably less than what American pharmacies charge because of Canadian price controls and a favorable exchange rate.

On Thursday, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced plans to make his state the first in the nation to help residents buy lower-priced drugs from Canada. The state plans to create a Web site that lists Canadian pharmacies that meet Minnesota's safety standards. State officials said they hope to have the site operating within months, according to the Associated Press.

Summing up the sentiments of many disgruntled consumers, AARP spokesman Steve Hahn said, "It's a national disgrace that people have to cross borders to find affordable drugs."

On Tuesday, Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich stepped up his call for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reverse its policy prohibiting state and local governments from importing drugs from Canada. Blagojevich launched an on-line petition drive for citizens to pressure the FDA to allow Canadian drug imports, which can cost half the price charged by American pharmacies.

"The FDA can ignore our letters, they can ignore our calls," Blagojevich, a Democrat, told a Chicago news conference. "But they can't ignore the people forever."

Blagojevich also has: sent letters to the nation's governors, asking them to join in pressing the FDA to allow the imports; sent a delegation of experts on a fact-finding trip to Canadian pharmacies; and called on Illinois' attorney general to investigate possible antitrust violations by major pharmaceutical companies fighting to keep U.S. consumers from buying drugs from Canada.

The governor questioned the validity of the FDA's repeated claims that the medications from Canada could be dangerous and suggested the agency has guarded the "interests of the big drug companies" instead of American consumers.

For their part, pharmaceutical companies say they need to charge as much as they do for drugs sold in the United States to cover the high costs of crucial research and development necessary to produce new medicines.

Other states have also begun looking north of the border for a possible antidote to soaring prescription drug costs.

Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly this week joined top officials from other states in calling on the federal government to set up channels for Americans to get prescription drugs from Canada legally.

And in recent days, the governors of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa have said they're considering imported drugs from Canada to cut costs to senior citizens and taxpayers.

The stakes run high -- not only for individuals, but also governments that must pay escalating costs for prescription drugs.

In Illinois, for example, officials said the state spends $1.8 billion a year on prescription drugs for all its health-care programs -- $340 million of that for state employees and retirees. Wisconsin reports that its tab for state employees' prescriptions rose 15 percent, to $115 million this year, and is expected to climb to $128 million next year.

"Wisconsin's citizens pay staggering prices for prescription drugs, but our neighbors in Canada can often walk into a drug store and purchase the same prescriptions for far less," Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, wrote in a letter to a congressional committee considering prescription drug benefits.

In Congress, meanwhile, broad bipartisan support has led to passage of a House bill that would make it legal for U.S. residents and pharmacies to purchase prescription drugs from Canada and certain other nations. That could save consumers at least $635 billion each year, according to the legislation's sponsors, who include Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana, and Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat.

"An unaffordable drug is neither safe nor effective," the bill reads, adding that the federal government should "give all Americans immediate relief from the outrageously high cost of pharmaceuticals" and "reverse the perverse economics of the American pharmaceutical markets."

The fate of the measure appears less certain in the Senate, which has no companion bill but could conceivably open the borders by adding a provision to pending prescription drug benefit legislation.

Despite the clamor for legally imported drugs, the FDA has vowed to continue its crackdown, targeting some sellers of Canadian drugs and citing what the agency terms serious public health risks created by the importation of unapproved drugs.

The FDA said about two weeks ago that spot checks of 1,153 imported drug packages inspected at Miami and New York City postal facilities turned up many drugs that lacked FDA approval.

"It's 'buyer beware' when [customers] are ordering from pharmacies outside the United States," said Tom McGinness, the FDA's pharmacy affairs director. "You're not sure what you're going to get, whether it's an FDA-approved product, a foreign version of an American product or a counterfeit product."

Last month, the U.S. Justice Department, acting on an FDA request, filed suit in U.S. District Court seeking an injunction to close Rx Depot Inc. of Tulsa, Okla., and its sister company, Rx of Canada LLC. The FDA said about 80 storefront shops operated by the companies import and sell drugs that pose a "serious threat to the public health."

A lawyer representing Rx Depot dismissed as baseless the FDA's claims that the company sells dangerous drugs, and said it has no intention of closing down.

The FDA also has threatened to take action against CanaRx Services Inc., an Ontario-based company that supplies drugs to public employees in Springfield, Mass. In July, Springfield became the first U.S. city to offer a voluntary program to employees and retirees to buy prescription drugs from Canada.

CanaRx President Anthony Howard said the company had made changes to its Web site in response to FDA concerns, but would not shut down. "One thing I'm not wavering on is I'm going to continue to do what I do," Howard said. "Frankly, there's support right across America."

Another company, CanadaDrugs.com, has extended an open invitation to U.S. governors and other elected officials to visit its Winnipeg pharmacy.

Robert B. Fraser, the company's director of pharmacy, said every prescription is reviewed by at least three of the company's more than 20 pharmacists.

"We're not hidden in a back room smacking mosquitoes or counting polar bears," he said. "We're not selling any drug that's not safe and high-quality."

U.S. customers contact the company regularly, Fraser added. "They're thankful that we exist," he said, "because they're making quality-of-life decisions: 'Do I eat today, or do I get my drugs?'"

More information

For more on buying prescription drugs online, check out the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. To view Gov. Blagojevich's Web site, click here.

SOURCES: Tom McGinness, pharmacy affairs director, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Rockville, Md.; Anthony Howard, president, CanaRX Services Inc., Ontario; Robert B. Fraser, director, pharmacy, CanadaDrugs.com, Winnipeg; Pharmaceutical Market Access Act of 2003 (HR 2427); statements from U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly, Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle
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