Lawmakers seek to form mail order drug program

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(Host) A legislative coalition that’s working to lower drug prices has a new plan to buy pharmaceuticals in Canada. The coalition wants to form a non-profit organization that would use a mail order system to import drugs purchased north of the border.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) For several years now, a physicians’ group based in Bennington has helped patients get their prescription drugs in Canada. The group is called United Health Alliance and it’s recently expanded from Bennington to serve people in all 50 states. The savings are substantial. An Alliance survey shows that the first 145 patients who participated in the program saved about 68% by getting lower priced drugs in Canada.

Now, a national association of state lawmakers wants to work with the Bennington group. The plan is to establish a nonprofit pharmacy benefit manager, an organization that would work to get discount prices on mail order pharmaceuticals.

Dr. Elizabether Wennar runs the Bennington United Health Alliance. She says there are many potential benefits of a non-profit pharmacy benefit manager. She says the organization would ensure that the mail order drugs meet the highest health and safety standards.

(Wennar) “There are over 1.2 million individuals right now that are using personal importation to the United States as a means to access safe, affordable drugs. The difference here is that standards are going to be put in place for mail order.”

(Dillon) Windham Democratic Senator Peter Shumlin chairs the National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices. The group wants to find a state-based solution to lower drug prices. Shumlin, who’s also running for lieutenant governor, says his organization is developing a business plan for the new, non-profit pharmacy benefit plan:

(Shumlin) “So we have a very simple concept: We want to establish the country’s first non-profit public benefits management system to serve Vermonters and all Americans, business and government. We will simply be guided by a board of directors whose duty and responsibility is not to shareholders, but to consumers who want fair prices.”

(Dillon) There seems to be some momentum nationally for insurance companies to cover drugs bought in Canada. The company that provides coverage for AARP recently said it would reimburse subscribers for drugs they buy from Canada. And Blue Cross/Blue Shield plans in Washington state have outlined a similar policy.

Shumlin says the company that provides drug benefits for Vermont state employees says they would reimburse subscribers for Canadian drug purchases:

(Shumlin) “We’re challenging all Vermont insurers to join the other Blue Crosses, in Washington state and others, to reimburse for the cheapest receipts they receive – regardless of where the drug is purchased. That is critically important for Vermonters today.”

(Dillon) A spokesman for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Vermont says the company won’t rule out paying for Canadian pharmaceuticals. But he says Blue Cross also doesn’t want to put Vermont pharmacies out of business.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon at the senior citizens center in Winooski.

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