- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2004

Montgomery County officials yesterday announced a plan that would give every resident a discount of at least 20 percent on prescription drugs.

In addition, County Council members are expected to approve tonight a resolution supporting the importation of prescription drugs from Canada for county workers — in defiance of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Under the “Montgomery Rx” program, all county residents can use their prescription-drug cards without registering or paying a fee. Officials said the card will save residents between 20 percent and 50 percent on medications at 130 participating pharmacies.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat, said affordable health care is “a national problem that deserves our immediate attention.” He also spoke about high rates of uninsured people. “In the wealthiest country on the planet, this is simply unacceptable,” he said.

The discount drug-card program is modeled after one in Nassau County, N.Y., and is part of a 30-county pilot project run by the National Association of Counties.

NACO County Services Director Edward Ferguson said the organization wants its nearly 4,000 counties to use the program.

Mr. Duncan said the only cost to the county is the distribution of the cards, which will be available to anyone, but most likely will be handed out at senior centers. The cards are being printed and will be available “within days,” Mr. Duncan said.

Pharmacies will give the discount at the time of purchase once a resident presents the card.

Officials predicted that the council tonight will approve the resolution supporting the importation of Canadian drugs. However, allowing employees to buy Canadian drugs is against the law unless the FDA grants the state a waiver.

The FDA has said it will not grant a waiver, and Mr. Duncan said the county cannot break the law.

But some council members said passing the resolution will get the ball rolling and encourage agency heads to offer mail-order Canadian drugs as a voluntary benefit option to their employees and retirees.

Mr. Duncan and County Council President Steven Silverman yesterday sent a letter to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. requesting that the governor ask the FDA for the waiver.

Mr. Silverman, a Democrat, said the letter puts pressure on Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, to take action.

“We have a national health care crisis and we are looking to the federal government to step up and do what they are obligated to do,” Mr. Silverman said. “In the meantime, while this administration and this Congress have refused to do so, we cannot simply pass the buck.”

“We have to do what we can here at the local level,” he said. “There is a way to make certain that we have low-cost prescription drugs available for our residents in a safe, effective manner.”

The FDA repeatedly has warned that importing drugs from abroad is illegal and unsafe but has yet to take legal action against any jurisdiction that does so. Springfield, Mass., is one of those jurisdictions, and has saved at least $6 million since officials implemented the program.

Council member Tom Perez, a Democrat, said FDA officials have confirmed that waiver requests from any state will be denied.

“They are all [dead on arrival],” he said. “The FDA has allowed politics to infect decision-making. We don’t need Governor Ehrlich’s permission to move ahead. That’s what I think we should do.”

Council member Howard A. Denis, the lone Republican on the council, also supports the idea.

“We should not be paralyzed into inaction because of Annapolis or Washington,” Mr. Denis said. “Clearly, we have the authority to act.”

Council member Marilyn J. Praisner, a Democrat, took a defiant tone. “If we can’t do it nationally, we definitely will do it locally,” she said.

She said that, the way she understands it, if the resolution passes tonight, the county will send out requests-for-proposals to get a plan started, making Montgomery County the first jurisdiction in the state to import Canadian drugs.

Montgomery estimates that if 40 percent of the members use the plan in the first year, the county will save $6 million. If 100 percent participate, savings would be approximately $16 million.

Earlier this year, the state legislature nearly passed a bill that would have required the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to seek a waiver from the FDA to allow the state to implement a Canadian mail-order plan. Both the House and Senate had bills on the matter, but missed the deadline to reconcile the two bills. As a result, the bills were not resolved.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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