Burlington pursues drug plan, despite FDA warning

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(Host) Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle says he’s willing to risk violating federal law so city workers can buy low-cost prescription drugs from Canada. The Burlington city council last week gave Clavelle permission to investigate buying drugs from Canada. But the Food and Drug Administration warns the plan is illegal.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Last year, Burlington spent $670,000 on prescriptions for about 600 employees. Mayor Clavelle says the Canadian imports could save Burlington about 20% on health care costs.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the importation plan would violate federal law. At a news conference on Monday, Clavelle says that’s a risk he’s willing to take.

(Clavelle) “It’s not going to stop us. What we’re involved in now is a process of due diligence, so we understand the law. We also understand there are different interpretations of the law. I appreciate the efforts and I think that Burlington and other communities and states stepping forward will accelerate the process of changing the law. But also if necessary we’ll be open to testing the law. I think what’s important here is removing the barriers that are preventing citizens of this country from having access to reasonably priced Canadian drugs.”

(Host) Congressman Bernie Sanders is a frequent critic of the pharmaceutical industry. Four years ago, he took a busload of Vermonters to Canada to demonstrate that prescriptions are far less expensive north of the border.

Sanders says the issue has now struck a chord with governors and mayors around the country. Last week, the Republican governor of Minnesota said he wants his state to be the first to allow the public to buy cheaper Canadian drugs.

According to Sanders, the governors of Iowa and Illinois also favor re-importation plans. He says the debate has changed now that more and more political leaders are getting involved.

(Sanders) “A new element has been brought into the discussion. And that is not only are individuals being ripped off, taxpayers are being ripped off. If cities and states are forced to pay inflated prices for their public employees, then taxpayers are paying much more than they should be paying.”

(Dillon) But Vermont Governor Jim Douglas wants Congress to give its blessing before he’ll back a plan to import drugs from Canada. Douglas says he doesn’t want to break the law.

(Douglas) “There’s no question that drugs from Canada are cheaper still and provide opportunities for people to purchase them. I want to be respectful of the laws of the United States and hope that we can find ways to legally through Congressional action to make those available. I’d like to see the Congress act.”

(Dillon) The FDA is opposed to the Canadian imports because it says counterfeit or unsafe drugs could be sold to Americans. Sanders says the agency is more concerned about protecting the drug companies. He says a top FDA official told Congress that a million Americans have bought prescriptions in Canada with no safety problems.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.

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