ANNAPOLIS – Twenty-two senators are supporting a plan to import prescription drugs from Canada, a move that might significantly reduce drug costs for state health care programs, but also could be illegal.
Under the bill, filed Friday by Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, the state would set up a pharmacy benefits manager to operate a Canadian Mail Order Plan, an organized effort to bring less expensive drugs to Maryland residents.
There is a groundswell of support for the bill, Pinsky said. The 21 co-sponsors he’s signed on leave him just two people short of passing the bill in the 47-member Senate.
“The real issue here is, in Canada, the government operates the health industry and they’ve told the pharmaceutical companies, ‘Your profit is too high. If you want to operate here, you have to lower prices,'” said Pinsky. The U.S. free market allows drug companies to gouge citizens, he said.
Pinsky described the bill as a win-win situation for consumers and the state, estimating that drugs could cost a third to two-thirds less when bought from Canada.
“If our drug price goes down for people on Medicaid, it’s less money out of the state’s coffers,” he said.
While the plan may reduce costs, it will also violate federal law: bringing drugs into the country is illegal, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
“We worry about the safety of these medications, and it puts patients at risk,” said Tom McGinnis, FDA director of pharmacy affairs.
Regardless of legal concerns, imported medication might not be “up to snuff” or may be counterfeit, said Howard Schiff, a spokesperson for the Maryland Pharmacy Association, who said the bill could adversely affect the 1,200 community pharmacies in the state.
Neither American nor Canadian authorities will guarantee the safety of drugs imported to Americans, said FDA policy director William K. Hubbard in a November 2003 letter to supporters of an Illinois drug importation plan. Even if drugs are exactly the same, they may lack FDA-approved labeling to inform patients of risks, he said.
At least three other states and one city have begun developing similar plans, said Pinsky, and a system is in place in Springfield, Mass.
Pinsky said the FDA hasn’t stepped in to prevent cities from importing prescription drugs. But according to an FDA press release, the department threatened a Montgomery, Ala., pharmacy benefits manager Thursday with seizure or injunction if importation wasn’t corrected within 15 days.
“We are not going to put people at risk,” Pinsky said. “I want to make sure the standards are held, and held high.”
“If you want to believe the pharmaceutical companies that this will result in World War III, you can. I believe the arguments are just to protect their profits,” he said, noting that pharmaceutical companies have had the fastest growing profit margin over the last 10 to 15 years.
The plan will only take effect if it is economically beneficial for the state and patients.
Nationally, Congress has ordered Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson to report whether there is a safe way to import cheaper drugs to benefit programs such as Medicare. His verdict is due in December.