Springfield State Journal Register

September 25, 2003

Drug plan strongly opposed
But others back Blagojevich on buying in Canada


WASHINGTON - Gov. Rod Blagojevich went to Capitol Hill Wednesday to try to persuade Congress and the Bush administration to allow states and local governments to buy lower-priced prescription drugs from Canada.

But he was met with substantial opposition from the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Yorkville, who cited a range of concerns, including consumer safety.

"Opening our borders to unregulated medicines is a risk we believe is not worth taking for the American consumer," FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan wrote in response to a written query from Blagojevich last week.

McClellan was out of the country and unavailable to meet with Blagojevich, the governor's aides said. McClellan's letter, released Wednesday, firmly rejected the idea even as it appears to be gaining popularity in many states and local governments seeking to control the soaring cost of prescription drugs.

"No one is suggesting that we import prescription drugs that aren't safe," said Blagojevich, responding to the FDA's concerns, at a Capitol Hill news conference. "But ... why not work to help more prescription drugs manufactured abroad meet your guidelines, so that more consumers can eventually purchase them and save money?"

Blagojevich met with Hastert earlier Wednesday, but said that they agreed to disagree.

"When you can buy the same medication in Canada, made by the exact same company, and pay 50, 60, 70 percent less in price, you ought to try to do that," the governor said. "To me, this is about the marketplace, not about the big pharmaceutical companies."

In addition to safety concerns cited by the FDA, Hastert contends that Canada doesn't have a large enough supply to provide the quantity of prescription drugs to the United States, said his spokesman, John Feehery.

Blagojevich's news conference was briefly interrupted by a man shouting about the dangers of foreign-made medicines. The man claimed to be paid by the pharmaceutical industry, but that couldn't be verified.

Illinois gained national attention two weeks ago when Blagojevich ordered a study of how much the state could save if it purchased brand-name, FDA-approved prescription drugs in Canada.

The idea seems to be gaining momentum. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said Tuesday that he, too, will study the issue. And, as Blagojevich pitched the idea on Capitol Hill, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced he is directing state officials to examine the idea.

Blagojevich and House members who support the idea said the groundswell of support will put added pressure on the FDA and Congress to find a way to limit costs of prescription drugs to consumers.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Chicago, and 141 other House Democrats recently sent a letter to the members of the House-Senate Medicare conference urging them to include language making it legal to purchase FDA-approved drugs from Canada. The House in July approved such language, 243 to 186. Hastert opposed it.

In Illinois, representatives of the Illinois Pharmacists Association and the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy met with the governor's "special drug advocates," Scott McKibbon and Ram Kamath, to share their concerns.

"We support in theory the reduction in costs for citizens, but certainly not if it's going to compromise the legality and safety of our patients," said Mike Patton of the Illinois Pharmacists Association.

For example, ordering drugs from Internet sites could be as risky as buying medicine from a guy on the street corner, Patton said.

"We don't know where these sites are ... they could be in Afghanistan," Patton said, adding that most Web sites require purchasers to waive liability - something their local pharmacists don't do.

There are also legal concerns, he said. State officials and taxpayers need to know whether the state could be held liable if a patient died after using medicine from another country, Patton said.