Thursday, February 23, 2006

Montgomery County sued the federal government yesterday for blocking the county from setting up a drug reimportation program with Canada.

County Executive Douglas Duncan said the suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt against the Food and Drug Administration and the Health and Human Services Department.

“The whole point of [the lawsuit] is to get cheaper medications into the hands of those who need them most,” said Mr. Duncan, a Democrat who is seeking the Maryland gubernatorial nomination.

The suit seeks to overturn a decision by FDA denying the county a waiver under the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act to allow employees and eventually residents to buy prescription medications from Canada legally.

“What better place to do this than in Montgomery County, home of the FDA,” Mr. Duncan said at a press conference yesterday.

FDA spokeswoman Rae Jones said the agency had not received the suit and would not comment on any pending litigation.

The agency has been sued twice before by Vermont and private citizens from Illinois regarding Canadian drug imports, Ms. Jones said. Both suits were dismissed.

She stressed that U.S. consumers can lower their drug costs legally by buying generic prescriptions or enrolling in a drug discount program, such as the Medicare Part D benefit for senior citizens.

Bill Hall, a spokesman for HHS, said the federal health agency would not comment on any legal matters.

“But we have continued to resist any attempts to put any systems in place for reimportation of prescription drugs because we cannot vouch for the safety of what people may be buying from other countries,” he said.

If the suit is successful, Montgomery County plans to set up a test program that would allow only county employees to buy their drugs from Canada, Mr. Duncan said. The program would later expand to all county residents depending on its progress, he said.

Montgomery County, which spent roughly $24.5 million on prescription drugs for its employees and retirees last year, would save 20 percent or more than $4 million if it were able to buy the medicines from Canada, County Attorney Charles Thompson Jr. said.

The lawsuit comes after a year-and-half campaign by Mr. Duncan to set up a drug reimportation program for county residents.

In addition to petitioning the FDA, Mr. Duncan said last year he wrote to Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. but did not receive a response.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said Mr. Ehrlich was not taking a position on the issue.

President Bush has frequently said that Americans should not buy prescription drugs from Canada, citing safety issues that the drugs could be counterfeits.

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