Peoria Journal Star

December 22, 2004

Safety of drug imports questioned

BY Dori Meinert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON --A federal task force on Tuesday said that permitting Americans to buy prescription drugs overseas would raise safety concerns that, if addressed, would reduce most consumer savings and discourage research into new drugs.

Generic drugs would be a safer, and often cheaper, alternative, the Bush administration task force concluded.

The report said "total savings to consumers from legalized importation under a commercial system would be a small percentage relative to total drug spending in the U.S. (about 1 percent to 2 percent).

It went on to say "these savings are much smaller than some specific international comparisons of retail prices for certain drugs might suggest. Under any safe, legalized commercial importation program, when the scope is limited, intermediaries would likely capture a large part of the price differences."

Abandoning his attempt to get federal approval, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich this fall launched a program to help residents buy prescription drugs from pre-screened pharmacies in Canada, England and Ireland.

"There's nothing surprising in the report," said the governor's spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch. "It doesn't deter us at all in what it is we are doing.

"We've set up a system where those who live in Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas and Missouri can find these discounted prices, 25 to 50 percent off their prescription medicines, abroad. We have layer upon layer of safeguards and we're finding success. So we're staying our course."

Michael Patton, executive director of the Illinois Pharmacists Association, said he was pleased that the administration's task force re-affirmed its confidence in the Food and Drug Administration's ability to oversee the security of the U.S. medication supply system.

"I also find it encouraging that they wouldn't cave into political maneuvers to try to provide for importation," Patton said. "One, I don't think they have the staff, the resources or the capability to do it. I would hate to see our system jeopardized, or in any way compromised."

The task force cited the current inadequacy of FDA resources to effectively monitor drug imports. Of 3,800 field staff, only 450 are involved in investigative import activities. The FDA would need "a meaningful investment" of personnel and technology if importation were legalized.

The report also found that legalizing drug importation could increase the liability risks for consumers and manufacturers.

Yet increasing the use of generic drugs "could reduce drug spending by billions of dollars annually," the task force concluded. The Medicare prescription drug law mandated establishing the task force.

Meanwhile, some members of Congress have pledged to push ahead with legislation next year to allow importation. Legislation passed the House last year, but several Senate bills stalled after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who is a surgeon, refused to allow a vote in that body.

A bipartisan coalition including Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Chicago, a strong supporter of the Illinois drug importation program, expressed disappointment with the task force report.

"By convening this task force, HHS had an opportunity to take an innovative step forward to give American families access to world-class prescription drugs at affordable prices," the coalition said. "Unfortunately, this one-sided report indicates no willingness to find solutions, instead dismissing importation using the same scare tactics employed by the pharmaceutical companies themselves."