By Michelle Seeber
Pharmacists in Portales are concerned about support for legalizing lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada and Europe.
Dick Haverland, pharmacist at C.J.’s Pill Box Pharmacy, said his main concern was guaranteeing the purity of medications and ensuring they wouldn’t be forgeries.
“(Verification is) pretty hard to do over the internet,” Haverland said. “If (the government) would set up some kind of inspection where these things are coming from, I would say, ‘fine.’ But if stockholders in Europe start losing money, prices will go higher. It’s all going to come out in the wash, no matter what they do.”
LaDawna Brook, a pharmacist at Marty’s Pharmacy, said as a pharmacist, she’s concerned about the health and wellbeing of her patients.
“Our drug companies spend a tremendous amount of money on research and development,” Brook said. “The foreign countries don’t have the standards we do.”
Support for legalizing lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada is growing in Congress amid an election-year clamor from states, lawmakers and the elderly.
The White House and Republican congressional leaders remain opposed, saying there is no way to ensure safety. Nonetheless, proponents contend that public frustration with rising drug prices and growing defiance of a federal ban on prescription imports will force action before the November elections.
The latest legislation to allow Americans to fill their prescriptions in Canada was introduced Wednesday by a diverse group of Republican and Democratic senators. It would eventually allow drugs to be imported from 20 industrialized countries, mainly Europe.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, one of its sponsors, said the bill “is a recognition of reality” that also assures safety by limiting imports to drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration and manufactured at FDA-inspected plants. It also would increase the FDA’s budget to do inspections.
Several cities and states facing budget crises already have turned to Canada to buy prescription drugs for workers or made it easier for residents to hook up with Canadian Internet pharmacies. Springfield, Mass., officials said this week the city has saved $2 million since it started nine months ago buying prescription drugs from Canada for its city employees and retirees.
Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed in a recent Associated Press poll said the government should make it easier to buy cheaper drugs from Canada or other countries.
The issue has become irresistible to many politicians in an election year because it is easy for the public to understand, said Robert Blendon, an analyst of public opinion on health care. “It shows that politicians are trying to do something to lower costs right away,” said Blendon, a Harvard professor of health policy.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., illustrated that point at a Capitol news conference to talk about the new legislation. Dorgan displayed two bottles of the best-selling cholesterol medicine Lipitor, one for sale in Canada, the other in the United States.
A single tablet of Lipitor sells for $1.01 in Canada, but is $1.81 in the United States, Dorgan said. “We pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, by far,” he said. The legislation “would put downward pressure on prescription drug prices.”
The pharmaceutical industry has staunchly opposed efforts to legalize imported pharmaceuticals. A coalition of health care groups with ties to the industry criticized the legislation, saying it would lead to a rise in counterfeit drugs in this country.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the administration is awaiting a report on drug imports prepared by a government task force — a requirement of last year’s Medicare law. Duffy said greater use of generic drugs and Medicare prescription drug benefits in the new law will help control drug costs for older and disabled Americans.
Spokesmen for Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said the Republican leaders are uneasy about the safety of imported drugs. Frist, however, has asked Sen. Judd Gregg, chairman of the Senate health committee, to study the issue. Gregg, R-N.H., plans to introduce his own bill and hold hearings on the topic early next month.
A Senate Republican leadership aide said put the chances of a bill passing the Senate at 50-50. He said it was less likely that a bill would become law.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said support for drug imports is strong, but nothing like the outcry for the Medicare prescription drug program that was enacted last year. “This doesn’t have anywhere near the broad appeal,” Ayres said.
Blendon, the public opinion analyst, said that changing the law to permit imports would do little to address prescription drug prices. “There’s no question that if they pass it, we’re going to be back next year with the question of rising costs,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.