CHICAGO, Aug 17, 2004 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is defying the federal government with a first-in-the-nation plan to make it safe and easy for residents to buy cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and Europe.
Blagojevich, who has led state efforts to legalize the re-importation of prescription medicines from Canada, said the new state program would give 13 million Illinois residents access to prescription drugs from Canada, Ireland, England and Scotland, where prices are 25 percent to 50 percent cheaper for the same drugs.
"There's nothing in the law to stop us from doing this," he said. He expressed confidence in the legality and safety of the program despite requests by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that states not act on their own to facilitate importation of foreign drugs.
Illinois' program will contract with a Pharmacy Benefits Manager in Canada to order refills of the most popular 100 common brand-name medicines from approved pharmacies and wholesalers in Canada and Europe.
A Web site and a 24-hour, toll-free telephone number are expected to be up and running in a few weeks. Patients will have to complete a health profile and mail an original prescription or have their doctor fax one to a clearinghouse network physician. It will take a week to 21 days to fill the prescription by mail.
"We have taken every possible step we could think of to convince the FDA, the Congress, and anyone and everyone who will listen, that people across Illinois, and across our country, deserve access to safe and lower-cost prescription drugs," Blagojevich said.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who sponsored drug re-importation measures in the U.S. House, said it was unfair that big pharmaceutical companies can outsource research and development to India to take advantage of cheaper labor but that consumers could not go outside the country seeking lower prices.
He called on the Senate to pass a prescription-drug re-importation bill approved by the House. The House has passed four different measures on prescription drugs, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is co-sponsor of similar legislation in the Senate.
"It's time for the Senate to come in and be a participant," Emanuel told a news conference at the Thompson State of Illinois Building.
Blagojevich said Illinois had worked for a year trying to win FDA approval of lower-cost pharmaceuticals from Canada and only acted now because nothing had happened.
He said more than 1 million Americans have obtained prescription drugs from Canada each year for a decade and that no one had been harmed by the medicines despite FDA warnings that it cannot guarantee the safety of drugs from outside the United States.
The FDA has not taken any action against Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and New Hampshire for creating state-sanctioned Web sites that allow their residents to refill prescriptions from Canada. The city of Springfield, Mass., allows city employees and retirees to buy mail-order drugs from Canada. Vermont sued the FDA.
Illinois is the first state to reach beyond Canada to the global economy in search of lower-priced medicines.
"Canada is not the only place on the globe where they pay less than we do for prescription drugs," Blagojevich said. "We can't keep asking the 500,000 senior citizens who live in Illinois and lack prescription-drug coverage to keep deciding, 'Do I pay for my medicine or do I buy my groceries?'"
A study by state prescription-drug experts, "Can Illinois Residents Safely and Effectively Purchase Drugs from Europe," released Tuesday examined pharmacies and drug-industry safety in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands.
"They learned the only difference between prescription drugs here and prescription drugs there is the price," Blagojevich said. "We learned they are as safe and in some cases even safer than drugs here in the United States."
Thirty-five to 50 pharmacies in Canada and the United Kingdom will be certified by the state of Illinois' board of pharmacy to sell the 100 most commonly used brand-name prescription drugs for chronic or long-term conditions. Generics, whose costs is already lower than brand-name drugs in the United States, and narcotic pain medication will not be included in the program.
"Thirteen million people who live in Illinois will have the opportunity to save hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars, on their prescription drugs," he said. The program will be open to residents, state employees, retirees and small businesses that do not offer employees prescription-drug coverage.
Will there be a federal backlash?
William Hubbard, FDA associate commissioner for policy and planning, told the Chicago Sun-Times Illinois' plan was "clearly and unequivocally illegal." Hubbard said the FDA is concerned about the safety of imported drugs and could ask a judge to referee the matter.
In December Illinois asked the FDA for a special wavier for a pilot drug re-importation program with Canada that federal drug regulators took under advisement and rejected. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson said at that time re-importation of prescription drugs was inevitable.
Blagojevich said U.S. prices for the 30 most prescribed drugs for senior citizens rose at four times the rate of inflation during the past year and that large drug companies had cynically restricted supplies to Canadian pharmacies that served Americans.
A recent comparison of costs for a three-month supply of the same prescription medications in Illinois, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Canada showed Americans paid 38 percent more than Canadians and 31 percent more than citizens of the U.K.
A three-month supply of Lipitor, a popular cholesterol drug, was $214 in the United States, $162 in Canada, $158 in the U.K. and $144 in Ireland.
"We are talking about the exact same medicines made by the same companies," Blagojevich said, calling re-importation a non-partisan issue. Emanuel said 80 percent of the respondents favored re-importation of prescription drugs in a survey by Families USA.
Blagojevich said state residents could save a projected $1.9 billion in the first year if all Illinoisans used the program to obtain prescription drugs. In the second year the state will waive co-pays for state employees and retirees who purchase drugs through the program, saving Illinois up to $50 million.
The list of available drugs was limited to those with a long shelf life that cannot spoil during shipping.
"People in the United States are use to the gold standard as far as regulations with the FDA," Scott Drabant, president of the Illinois Pharmacists Association told CLTV, a Chicago cable news outlet. "To circumvent that, you by definition are creating a situation that's not as safe as being underneath that umbrella of protection of the FDA."
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Copyright 2004 by United Press International.