- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2003

CHICAGO (AP) — Hoping to save money on prescription drugs, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich yesterday asked for federal permission to set up a pilot program that would import medication from Canada.

The Democratic governor said the new federal Medicare law gives the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services the authority to waive the rules against bringing in drugs from outside the country in order to set up a pilot program. He sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson asking for a decision on the waiver in 30 days.

Mr. Blagojevich proposed several safeguards to help alleviate worries about the quality of drugs bought in other countries.

The state would develop a list of drugs, all approved by the Food and Drug Administration, that could be imported. All prescriptions would be filled by an Illinois pharmacist first, and only refills could be imported. The program would be voluntary for the state’s 230,000 state employees and retirees.

“All we’re asking for is an opportunity to try something new,” Mr. Blagojevich said at a news conference.

He said the state might sue if the waiver is rejected.

“My preference is to avoid lawsuits,” Mr. Blagojevich said. “I’m not ruling that out as a possibility.”

New Hampshire and Boston have announced plans to buy prescription drugs from Canada as a way to cut costs, and Springfield, Mass., already is allowing city employees to do so. But Mr. Blagojevich, while pushing to overturn the federal ban on importing lower-priced drugs from Canada, has said he will not break the law.

Bill Pierce, a Health Department spokesman, said previous laws have included similar language but Mr. Thompson and his predecessor, Donna E. Shalala, were never able to guarantee the safety of reimported drugs.

“Nothing changes,” Mr. Pierce said. “The bottom line is, twice there have been similar laws to allow reimported drugs but only if they have been certified as safe. Donna Shalala and Secretary Thompson have said they could not do that. That’s the key part.”

Mr. Blagojevich also said he and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Republican, have scheduled a prescription-drug summit for the nation’s governors on Feb. 24 in Washington.

Mr. Blagojevich commissioned a report earlier this year that said Illinois would save as much as $91 million if state employees and retirees bought drugs from Canada, which is illegal. Illinois spent $340 million on prescription drugs for its employees and retirees last fiscal year, a 15 percent increase from the previous year.

The Food and Drug Administration criticized that report for inflating savings and wrongly assuming Canadian health authorities could guarantee the safety of drugs sent to the United States.

Brand-name drugs often cost less in Canada because of government price controls, but the FDA and pharmaceutical companies say buying Canadian drugs presents significant health and safety risks because of differences in such things as dosage.


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