Senate to take up drug re-importation legislation

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(Host) Legislation allowing Vermonters to purchase prescription drugs from Canada will be debated on the Senate floor this week. Backers of the bill say the plan will make many popular drugs available at considerable savings but skeptics argue the proposal will have very little impact on most people in the state.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) At the start of the Legislative session, Democratic leaders vowed to send Governor Jim Douglas a drug re-importation bill by Town Meeting Day. It appears they’re going to make this deadline with weeks to spare.

The full Senate is set to consider legislation that will allow Vermont to join a multi-state purchasing plan initiated by the state of Illinois. The program makes the 100 most common drugs available for sale at a savings of up to 50 percent through a special Web site.

Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Welch thinks the plan, known as ISaveRx, is the easiest way for Vermonters to gain access to drugs from wholesalers in Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland:

(Welch) “It’s the most practical. It’s a program that’s set up. It’d be a minimal expense and in fact the states have to work together if we’re going to protect ourselves because the federal government has really become our adversary. It’s doing everything it can to keep prices high and Illinois has taken some leadership and several states have joined with it and it’s a good program.”

(Kinzel) The national drug companies say that it could be unsafe to purchase their products in this manner. Welch doesn’t buy those arguments.

(Welch) “Safety is absolutely concern number one. The bogus claims of the pharmaceutical industry about Canadian safety, no, I don’t buy that. But safety is a concern, so in the bill we’re going to make certain that our commissioner of health has an opportunity to do due diligence to certify on behalf of Vermonters that the program and the procedures are safe.”

(Kinzel) Bennington Senator Mark Shepard voted for the bill as a member of the Senate Finance committee but he thinks it’s a limited, short-term solution to higher drug costs. Shepard notes that very few people have taken advantage of this program in Illinois:

(Shepard) “This is a very small solution affecting very, very few people and I think we need to move on to the bigger issue, which is Medicaid, and our health care providing for and paying for Vermont in particular and really put our energy into that. And this is in some sense could be a diversion from that because it really is not going to solve – at least from what’s happened in Illinois – what we’ve seen and the chance of this ending, it’s not going to be a big part of our solution here.”

(Kinzel) A companion bill is working its way through the House. If the legislation passes the Senate this week, the proposal could be up for debate on the House floor by the middle of next month.

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

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