ROCKVILLE – Although foreign prescription drug importation is illegal, the Montgomery County Council voted 7-2 Tuesday in favor of establishing a voluntary program to import medication from Canada for county employees, retirees and their families.
The resolution calls for a program to import “safe, high-quality, maintenance drugs” to be in place by Feb. 1, 2005. The program will be offered to 40,000 current and former county workers, along with 45,000 of their family members.
Montgomery County spends an estimated $70 million per year on prescription drugs. Medication costs for active employees of the county’s school system alone “have more than doubled over the past six years,” according to a County Council news release. Council spokesman Patrick Lacefield said the program could save between $2 million and $6 million annually.
The FDA has repeatedly stated that foreign prescription drug importation is illegal.
William Hubbard, FDA associate commissioner for policy and planning, said the administration has begun legal proceedings against commercial suppliers, but not government officials, where importation has occurred.
“If and when the county starts importing drugs, the FDA’s going to have a decision to make,” he said.
The council said it’s crucial the county work with the FDA because the federal agency’s headquarters is in Montgomery County.
Councilwoman Marilyn Praisner said it would be “silly” to ignore the FDA’s presence in the county’s backyard.
But “until we face those challenges, local governments and state governments will have to step forward,” she said.
Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan said the county doesn’t want to quarrel with the FDA, so the next step is to gain its support.
“We want to provide something safe for our employees and we’re asking the FDA to work with us,” Duncan said.
Councilman Howard A. Denis said if the vote was put off any longer, the problem would grow, “as this tsunami sweeps the country.”
“If this had been defeated, the possibility of re-importation for our county employees and retirees would be nil,” he said.
Denis, the only Republican on the council, sported small U.S. and Canadian flag pins on his left lapel in show of his support.
Council members Praisner, Phil Andrews, Nancy Floreen and Council President Steven Silverman joined co-sponsors Denis, George Leventhal and Thomas Perez in favor of the resolution.
Several members commended Perez for his leadership on the issue, including Michael Knapp and Michael L. Subin, the two voices of opposition.
“Mr. Perez has done more work on this issue than anyone I’ve seen since I’ve been here, which was when Moby Dick was a minnow,” Subin said. “But I just don’t believe a body that makes the law should encourage others to break the law.”
Knapp questioned the drugs’ safety and the amount the county would actually save.
“We’ll have $2.5 (million) to $5 million in savings only if there’s 100 percent participation,” Knapp said.
However, the Management and Fiscal Policy Committee, a task force assigned by the council to examine the issue, determined that 40 percent participation would bring $6 million in savings. Of the 396 county employees it surveyed, 68 percent said they would use the service.
A similar program has been in place in Springfield, Mass., for about a year. Former Springfield Mayor Michael Albano spoke in Montgomery County two weeks ago in support of the idea.
Hubbard said the FDA has initiated court proceedings against suppliers in Springfield. And he said while he understands Montgomery County is trying to do something good, the FDA is trying to keep drugs safe.
But Perez questions the FDA’s motives.
“If this is illegal, why hasn’t the FDA filed a lawsuit (against a government)?” he asked.
Sareh Seyedkazemi, 25, one of about a dozen University of Maryland School of Pharmacy students who attended the meeting, said she disagrees with the council’s decision to disregard the FDA.
“Our main concern is the safety of our patients,” she said.
Howard Schiff, executive director of the Maryland Pharmacists Association, also opposed the council’s verdict. In a typed statement, Schiff said he is “outraged” by the legislation. “For the Council to simply claim that the safety issue is a bogus one is just plain wrong and irresponsible.”