Canadian drugs just a ‘Band-Aid’

Minnesota is hardly alone in turning to Canada, where drugs are cheaper.

It’s hard to quarrel with Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s plan to reimport lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada. As the cost of prescription medications continues to skyrocket, reimporting those same drugs at a fraction of the cost is an increasingly attractive option for Minnesota’s seniors. Last month Pawlenty ignored Food and Drug Administration warnings and launched a Web site designed to do just that. Unfortunately, his plan applies a Band-Aid-style solution to a problem that demands more fundamental reform.

Minnesota is hardly alone in turning to Canada, where drugs are cheaper, because they are subject to government price controls. Several other states, including Maine, Wisconsin and Illinois, have chosen to openly defy FDA regulations banning reimportation. The agency has maintained that it cannot ensure the safety of drugs imported from foreign wholesalers. But, support for overturning the ban was apparent at a recent meeting of the National Governors Association, where several governors joined Pawlenty in denouncing the FDA’s resistance.

The Medicare prescription drug plan Congress passed last year will help ease some of the out-of-pocket costs many seniors must pay. But the plan won’t fully take effect until 2006, and even then, it will leave too many seniors without the help they need. Pawlenty’s health-care task force, the Minnesota Citizens Forum on Health Care Costs, has put forth a number of preliminary recommendations for health-care reform, including universal health care for Minnesotans and a “buyer’s alliance” of consumers and employers to push for major changes to the health-care system. The alliance should be used to negotiate lower drug prices with the largest pharmaceutical companies. Pawlenty can also remind his Republican colleagues in Washington that Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson needs that same negotiating power.

Pawlenty is right to take novel steps to help Minnesota seniors struggling to afford out-of-pocket drug costs. But he will need to do more than reimport drugs from Canada. Standing up to the FDA might make for good politics, but it is a poor substitute for serious health-care and prescription drug reform.