Governor’s Race: Re-importation of prescription drugs

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(Host) This week, VPR has been looking at the top issues in the gubernatorial election. One of those is the “re-importation” of drugs from Canada. The Democratic and Republican candidates both have different approaches and both candidates say their positions reflect their leadership style.

Here’s VPR’s Bob Kinzel.

(Kinzel) As the cost of prescription drugs continues to escalate, more and more Vermonters are turning to Canada to buy their medications because, on average, most popular drugs are often 50 to 60 percent cheaper because of that country’s price control system.

For several years, individuals would actually cross the border and visit a Canadian pharmacy but now many transactions are taking place through the Internet. Should the state of Vermont actively assist people who want to buy their drugs from Canada?

It’s a delicate issue because the federal Food and Drug Administration says its approval is needed and, to date, the FDA has opposed all efforts but hasn’t cracked down yet on any state or city that has set up a program.

Democrat Peter Clavelle says he’d authorize a program the very first day he’s sworn into office. As mayor of Burlington, Clavelle established a re-importation program and now he wants to take this initiative statewide:

(Clavelle) “I meet seniors every day who are spending hundreds of dollars per months on prescription drugs. They can save huge costs but what we need is leadership and the governor is not providing this leadership. He awaits the permission of George W. Bush and he’s going to have a long wait because Bush on this issue is aligned with the pharmaceutical industry, not the people of this country.”

(Kinzel) Incumbent Republican Jim Douglas says he doesn’t support this approach because of the FDA’s opposition. Douglas says it’s wrong for a governor to knowingly break the law:

(Douglas) “There may not be any enforcement action but I don’t think the law is gray. It’s not legal and his assertion, for example, that we can save a lot of money in Medicaid if we re-import drugs is absolutely false because Medicaid is not going to reimburse for a program that is against the federal law. I think real leadership is not flaunting the law but working within the system to change it.”

(Kinzel) Instead, Douglas says he’s working to reduce drug costs for the state’s Medicaid program by having Vermont join a multi-state purchasing pool. He wants Congress to create more competition among the drug companies and his administration is suing the FDA because the agency has rejected Vermont’s application to set up a pilot re-importation program.

While re-importation has become a partisan issue in Vermont, that’s not the case in other parts of the country. A number of Republican governors have defied the FDA and aggressively launched programs to help consumers purchase drugs from Canada. Last January, Minnesota started a program known as RX Minnesota on the Web site of governor Tim Pawlenty.

Here’s how it works: a consumer clicks on the RX Minnesota link and receives a list of prescription drugs that the state has determined are safe to import from Canada; drugs that are temperature sensitive or controlled substances are not included. The list also contains prices being charged for these drugs by several Canadian pharmacies that have been inspected by Minnesota officials. The consumer fills out a purchase form and then sends the order to one of the participating pharmacies.

Kevin Goodno is the Commissioner of Human Services in Minnesota. Goodno says he understands that the FDA views the Minnesota plan as being illegal but he says the governor feels the state has a responsibility to its citizens:

(Goodno) “The responsibility is to make certain the people get the medications that they need because it’s not safe for individuals to go without medication if they can’t afford it. And likewise for those people that are currently purchasing from discount operations, I think we have an obligation as a state to help step in and provide additional information so folks have some assurances that they’re purchasing from legitimate operators. And that’s what our program’s doing.”

(Kinzel) The FDA has raised safety questions about drugs imported from Canada but Goodno is convinced that drugs purchased through the RX Minnesota program are perfectly safe:

(Goodno) “I’m convinced that if they go through and purchase from legitimate licensed operations – especially those that the state of Minnesota has gone up and inspected – that it’s just as safe for them to purchase from those sources as it would be from them to purchase from mail order pharmacies in the United States.”

(Kinzel) Clavelle and Douglas do agree on one aspect of the re-importation debate: they both want Congress to pass a law authorizing the practice.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

(Host) Our series on issues in the gubernatorial race continues Monday with a report on No Child Left Behind and other education issues.

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