ANNAPOLIS – An upcoming Montgomery County Council decision could pioneer the struggle for cheaper prescription drugs in Maryland.
The council is scheduled to vote Sept. 21 on a proposal to allow county employees, retirees and their families voluntary access to prescription drugs from Canada, a program that council spokesman Patrick Lacefield said he believes would be the first in the state. He said five of the nine Council members favor the program.
But the practice is illegal, and numerous obstacles at the state and national levels stand in the way. For one, Maryland Senate Bill 167, calling for implementation of a Canadian mail-order plan for prescription drugs by July 1, 2005, was rejected earlier this year.
Moreover, the U.S. House of Representatives passed several bills that would allow for drug importation, but those measures have stalled in the Senate. The Washington Post reported Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Wednesday the Senate will not vote on the issue before the November election because there are other matters to deliberate before the fall campaign begins.
In addition, if Montgomery County follows through with its proposed program, it would be acting without FDA approval.
“The FDA doesn’t know anything about these medications (from Canada),” said Tom McGinnis, FDA director of pharmacy affairs. “There is no mechanism to bring these medications in (to the U.S.) safely.”
McGinnis said the FDA does not endorse foreign prescription drugs because it doesn’t know their effects, what they’re made of or where they came from.
But Lacefield questions the FDA’s motives.
“If the FDA says it’s illegal, why aren’t they enforcing it?” he asked. “And where’s even one example of the dangers?”
If approved in Montgomery County, 40,000 current and former county workers, along with 45,000 of their family members, would be eligible to receive “prescription drugs from Canada at a significantly reduced cost,” according to a County Council press release.
According to that memo, prescription drug costs for active employees of the county’s school system “have more than doubled over the past six years (from $883 per employee to $1,992) and nearly doubled for retirees.”
Montgomery County spends an estimated $70 million per year on prescription drugs. Lacefield said the program could save between $2 million and $6 million annually.
Illinois was the first state to pursue a Canadian drug program for its workers, but was halted by federal authorities before it could execute the plan.
However, a program in Springfield, Mass., similar to the one Montgomery County is trying to establish, has been in place for about a year. Former Springfield Mayor Michael Albano is scheduled to speak in Montgomery County Monday. He will discuss the plan’s success in his city, as well as the benefits it provided his son, who has diabetes.
Although foreign prescription drug importation is illegal, one expert said smaller areas like Springfield are able to scoot under the radar.
“Everyone knows it is happening,” said Chris Coats, health policy analyst for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “Areas like Springfield with numbers only in the thousands can get away with it. But if it’s a whole state, that’s a different story.”
Montgomery County, with a population of about 900,000, is six times the size of Springfield.
William Hubbard, FDA associate commissioner for policy and planning, said the organization has begun legal proceedings against commercial suppliers in Springfield, but not against government officials.
“We understand that they (public officials) are trying to do something good by lowering drug costs,” he said, “And we’d like to think what we’re doing is good by keeping drugs safe.
“It may however come down to the FDA going to court against public officials. (For now), we’ll continue to be assertive with commercial suppliers in Springfield and could be with (suppliers) in Montgomery County, as well.”