Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The D.C. government is directing residents seeking low-cost prescription drugs to a Minnesota-sponsored program that shows them how to buy drugs from Canadian pharmacies — a purchase that violates federal law.

The District recently posted on its Web site (www.dc.gov) an item titled “Get Low Cost Prescription Drugs from Canada,” which links to a Minnesota plan called Minnesota RxConnect. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has declared the program unsafe.

“Anything we can do to push and highlight the disparity between our market and the Canadian market, we should do,” said D.C. Council member David A. Catania, at-large Republican, who proposed the Web link.

The city’s Web site includes a disclaimer: “Be aware: Federal law prohibits U.S. residents from purchasing pharmaceuticals from other countries while inside the United States; however, the law is currently not being enforced.”

FDA officials yesterday criticized the city’s move.

“They’re putting their people at an indirect risk,” William Hubbard, FDA associate commissioner for policy and planning, said. “We can’t get any assurances to the U.S. patients that they’re getting a good drug.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Hubbard sent a warning letter to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty about the Minnesota RxConnect Web site. The letter accused state officials of shining “a bright light on a path used not only by profiteers masquerading as pharmacists, but by outright criminals.”

Mr. Catania discounted the criticism, accusing the FDA of “acting as the muscle of the domestic pharmaceutical industry” to prevent competition.

A spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams said the decision to post a link on the city’s Web site surfaced after recent discussions between Mr. Catania and City Administrator Robert Bobb.

“We’re not advocating for people to do this. We’re telling them that it’s available,” said Tony Bullock, a spokesman for Mr. Williams.

“If you’re profiting and attempting to do this on the black market, you’re opening up for a lot of trouble,” Mr. Bullock said. “If you need to buy cheaper heart medication, it seems that this is one avenue you can pursue.”

Minnesota isn’t the only state to encourage residents to go across the border for cheaper prescription drugs. Similar efforts in New Hampshire and Wisconsin have encountered FDA opposition.

Mr. Catania said the District is directing residents to the Minnesota RxConnect Web site while a new D.C. law called AccessRx is being implemented.

The city’s AccessRx Act, which Mr. Catania sponsored, became law in May. The legislation creates a prescription program for low-income seniors and uninsured city residents, but a key provision in the plan is being held up in court.

A pharmaceutical trade association has sued the District to block a requirement that pharmacy-benefit managers tell insurance plans how much they pay for prescription drugs.

Lawyers for the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association said in court papers that the “District is attacking the one link in the prescription drug supply chain that has a proven record of lowering costs.”

But the District’s Office of the Attorney General has countered in separate court filings that pharmacy-benefit managers “now earn most of their profits from the drug manufacturers.”

Mr. Catania said city officials are working on implementing other uncontested portions of the AccessRx Act, including the prescription plan for low-income residents and a requirement for drug makers to report their marketing costs.

Meanwhile, Mr. Catania said linking city residents to the Minnesota RxConnect program “provides some measure of relief until we can move forward with AccessRx.”

A spokesman for Mr. Pawlenty yesterday said other states have sought advice from Minnesota on how to start similar programs to buy drugs from Canada.

But Pawlenty spokesman Daniel Wolter said this is the first time a government outside of the state has linked its residents to the RxConnect program.

“In an ideal world, it would be nice to see D.C. do this on their own,” Mr. Wolter said.

Mr. Catania said the District sought and received permission from Minnesota officials to link to the RxConnect Web site, but Mr. Wolter said the state generally turns down such requests.

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