Drug import plan might ease prescription prices

by Molly Moker

Students can order everything from pizza to school books online, and soon they might be able to add one more thing to that list: cheap prescription drugs.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is working to establish a state-sponsored mail-order program that would allow all Minnesotans to buy prescription drugs from approved Canadian pharmacies online.

Although lowering prescription drug prices could benefit Minnesotans, many do not support the plan, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is concerned Canadian drugs compromise safety.

“I wouldn’t do it, personally,” junior Alissa Vieregge said. “It seems risky to me.”

However, Vieregge said people should have the option to buy the cheaper drugs.

“I feel like if there are families that need to get their prescriptions and going to Canada is cheaper, then I agree with (Pawlenty),” Vieregge said. “They should be able to get it from Canada.”

Unlike the United States, the Canadian government regulates prescription drug prices – which sometimes makes them 50 percent cheaper than in the United States.

FDA officials, however, said online pharmacies are dangerous and unsafe – and ordering drugs online is currently illegal.

“Canadian online pharmacies have gone on the record saying that they cannot and will not guarantee the safety and accuracy of their prescriptions to overseas customers,” said Peter Pitts, an FDA associate commissioner for external relations.

In a weeklong examination last summer, the FDA seized 1,153 mail-order prescription drugs. Eighty-eight percent of the seized medications were erroneous and contained unapproved drugs. Pitts said many posed clear safety problems.

He said the FDA frequently finds improper labeling and filling problems in Canadian drugs.

Joining the action

Despite FDA concerns, U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., is working with Pawlenty to push for access to Canadian drugs. He said the FDA’s concerns are unfounded and its findings were blown out of proportion.

“If this is so unsafe, why aren’t people dropping like corkwood?” Gutknecht said.

Gutknecht said some errors the FDA study found might not have been serious.

“If the labeling wasn’t quite correct, like if parts of the labeling were still in a different language, then the FDA deemed them erroneous,” he said.

Gutknecht introduced his own bill this year that would allow all U.S. citizens to import Canadian drugs.

“If you bring non-FDA-approved drugs into this country, you are breaking the law,” Pitts said. “It is illegal to order online prescriptions and to import drugs from other countries.”

Gutknecht said the FDA has not enforced that law so far, and he is convinced Pawlenty’s plan will be successful.

Gutknecht pointed to Springfield, Mass. – where the mayor implemented a plan allowing city employees to order prescriptions from different countries. The FDA has not enforced the law there and he believes the same thing would happen in Minnesota. Under the Springfield plan, Gutknecht said, city employees have saved $60,000 in four months on their prescriptions.

He said by next year, 10 million Americans will buy their drugs from other countries.

On-campus concerns

Boynton Health Service pharmacy supervisor Steve Cain said he would not trust mail-order pharmacies for his own prescription needs.

“I would hesitate from using mail-to-order prescriptions,” Cain said. “No one checks these pharmacies for professionalism or sanity. All they have to do is apply for an application.”

Graduate student Kristin Willey said although she thinks prices are outrageous, she is unsure whether she would use foreign mail-order drugs.

“If it were a brand-name drug, so I would know that it was the exact same thing, I would trust it,” Willey said.

Cain said having the safety of talking to a licensed pharmacist is also a major issue.

“When people get their prescriptions from pharmacies here, they get the benefit of consultation and additional information,” Cain said. “I would never recommend anyone to get a prescription from a mail-to-order pharmacy. All they are is an assembly line.”

But Cain said because U.S. drugs are so expensive, he understands why people are turning to Canada, regardless of safety.

“When there’s such a price difference and if you don’t have insurance, I can see why going to Canada would make sense,” Cain said.

In June, the antibiotic Levaquin cost $9.63 per dose in the United States, Cain said. The same dose now costs $13.27, versus $4.98 from a Canadian online pharmacy.

“(Levaquin) doesn’t have a generic and there is no other line that is threatening them,” Cain said. He said price increases can often be attributed to marketing costs.

According to a September report by the Minnesota attorney general’s office, the pharmaceutical industry spends 37 percent of its revenue on administration and marketing. In 2001, the industry spent $2.5 billion on direct-to-customer advertising such as print and television ads.

According to the report, the industry’s staff increased 59 percent between 1995 and 2000 while research staff declined 2 percent.

The pharmaceutical industry has been the most profitable industry in the country throughout the last decade. In 2001, it was more than five times more profitable than the average Fortune 500 company.

Cain said the Pawlenty proposal skirts these issues.

“The U.S. government needs to take on our pharmaceutical companies directly,” Cain said. “Making poor people go to Canada is not the solution.”

Cain said the United States is one of the few countries that does not regulate drug prices.

Same problem, new angle

Earlier this year, Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch’s office drafted three bills to counteract drug price increases.

One bill would have required drug manufacturers to disclose pricing measures for their prescription drugs. According to the attorney general’s report, the Medicaid program pays excessive prices for prescription drugs because of false and inflated average prices reported by drug manufacturers.

Another bill would have allowed the state to take legal action against prescription drug manufacturers that provide false pricing information.

A third bill would have required drug companies to sell prescriptions to all Minnesotans at the same discounted rates that Medicaid pays.

However, Hatch said all three bills were either turned down or changed so the original purposes were not accomplished.

Passing this kind of legislation is also tough because the drug industry invests large resources in the political process, he said. It employs 675 lobbyists in Congress and 38 lobbyists in Minnesota.

The pharmaceutical trade organization Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America also expects to spend $150 million in lobbying, political contributions and issue advertising in 2003, Hatch said.

The Hennepin County Board of Commissioners recently agreed to explore ways the county could benefit from purchasing Canadian prescription drugs.