ANNAPOLIS – Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan announced Thursday that the county is suing the Bush administration in an effort to force the federal government to allow county residents to import low-cost prescription drugs from Canada.
“It is fundamentally unfair that people living in Canada today pay a fraction of what Americans pay for the same prescription drugs,” Duncan, a candidate for governor in the Democratic primary, told a press conference announcing the suit in Wheaton. “Our lawsuit seeks to correct this inequity and allow seniors and others to get access to more affordable medications.”
The suit comes several months after the Food and Drug Administration rejected a formal request by Duncan to allow Montgomery County to establish a pilot program to import drugs from Canada. The program would have allowed all county residents to order import drugs through the mail or over the Internet.
Filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, the suit seeks to overturn the FDA’s ruling on Duncan’s proposed importation program. Michael O. Leavitt, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Andrew C. von Eschenbach, the acting commissioner of the FDA are listed as defendants in the suit.
According to Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for Duncan, the FDA applied an uneven standard when it refused to allow Montgomery County to import drugs. She said municipalities in other states, including Vermont, Illinois and Massachusetts, already openly import drugs, and the FDA has done nothing to stop them.
“It’s not like people are ordering their drugs under the cloak of darkness,” she said. “They are ordering a lot of these drugs and often.”
Anderson said it is difficult to predict how much Montgomery County’s nearly 1 million residents would save on drug costs if the suit succeeds.
One city that has established a drug importation program is Springfield, Mass. The city offers its 20,000 employees the option of purchasing maintenance drugs from Canada if the prices are less or equal to what they can find from U.S. sellers, according to Linda Parent, the city’s insurance director. Parent said the program is popular and saved the city $4 million last year.
But critics of drug importation argue that the savings are not worth the safety risk posed by the foreign drugs. Howard Schiff, the executive director of the Maryland Pharmacists Association, said his group opposes importation of medications because it is impossible to assure that the drugs are not counterfeit, mislabeled or of low quality.
“We’ve had a closed system in the United States for over a hundred years and it has served us well,” he said. “The FDA has done a good job of keeping out counterfeits and bad drugs.”
Schiff said American consumers who purchase drugs from Canada are not covered by the regulations that the Canadian government has in place to protect its own citizens. He said many of the drugs that are sold by companies in Canada are manufactured in other countries.
“‘Canadian drugs’ is a misnomer,” he said. “Some might be good, but there are a lot of drugs that come from third-world countries where the standards are not up to U.S. standards.”
In rejecting Duncan’s proposed importation program, the FDA also cited safety as its major concern. According to a letter the FDA sent to Duncan, FDA examinations of imported drugs ordered through the mail have turned up medications that were improperly labeled and stored.
Schiff also argues that the new prescription drug benefit provide by Medicare Part D is helping consumers get drugs at more reasonable prices.
But Anderson disagrees that Part D has all the answers. She said that many low-income seniors have had a difficult time maneuvering through the system’s red-tape and that consumers need to have other options.
She also said about 80,000 Montgomery County residents have no health insurance and that the ability to cheaper import drugs would help them cope with the rising cost of health care. “We need to do anything and everything to work on getting people low-cost drugs,” she said.