WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of governors and lawmakers rallied on Capitol Hill yesterday for liberalized prescription drug importation as a means of cutting the skyrocketing cost of medication.
"It's wrong when Americans have to pay prices for prescription drugs that are far above prices paid in Canada or anywhere else in the industrialized world," Democratic Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois said. "Re-importing American drugs from Canada is a constructive solution to a serious and growing problem."
Blagojevich and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota were hosts of the meeting in the Senate commerce committee hearing room, which turned quickly into a pep rally for legislation to legalize the re-importing of Canadian drugs.
It also allowed a free-for-all bashing of pharmaceutical companies and Food and Drug Administration attempts to thwart the illegal cross-border trade, which experts say can save Americans 30 percent to 40 percent on prescription medications.
Spending on prescription drugs is by far the nation's fastest-growing health care expense. Almost a third of Americans say they struggle to buy medicine for their families, according to an Associated Press poll released Monday.
Eighty percent of those polled said drug prices would be a "very important" issue in this year's presidential election, and 65 percent backed liberalized drug importation.
Despite a federal prohibition on drug imports, Americans - most of them senior citizens who lack prescription insurance benefits - spent almost $1 billion last year buying drugs from Canadian mail-order pharmacies, which benefit from their country's controls on drug prices.
Several states, whose budgets were battered by the recession and the cost of providing medications for their employees and Medicaid programs, have begun following the seniors' lead, despite FDA opposition.
The FDA warned Pawlenty on Monday that his state government's Web site that directs people to Canadian pharmacies for lower-priced drugs is "unsafe, unsound and ill-considered."
The letter urged Pawlenty to "reconsider" the month-old site but stopped short of threatening legal action to shut it down. FDA officials declined invitations from the governors group to attend their meeting yesterday.
"This is not about saber-rattling and threatening people," Peter Pitts, FDA's associate commissioner for external relations, said in a telephone interview. The letter, he said, was part of an effort to have "an open dialogue" on a program that FDA maintains could threaten Americans' health by allowing easier entry of counterfeit drugs into the United States.
Pawlenty and other proponents of liberalized drug trade - including the governors of Wisconsin and West Virginia - said they consider the letter a threat.
Pawlenty pledged to keep the Web site in operation despite what he called "gathering storm clouds" of possible FDA legal action and recent moves by major pharmaceutical companies to shut off supplies of drugs to Canadian pharmacies that export to American citizens. "We are moving ahead in Minnesota," he said.
Also moving forward with a reimportation plan is Wisconsin.
Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat, announced that he would expand the Wisconsin state government's prescription drug Web site today to include Canadian pharmacies that had passed his state's inspections.
Illinois, meanwhile, is waiting for Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson to respond to its proposed drug importation program that the state estimates could save its employee-and-retiree health plan almost $91 million a year.
The Illinois plan would limit medications to those approved by FDA for chronic, long-term conditions, require each prescription to be filled at least once by an Illinois pharmacy before it could qualify for the Canadian program and launch regular inspections of participating Canadian pharmacies by state inspectors. Thompson has power under federal law to approve a re-importation plan.
And North Dakota plans to deliver its own importation plan to Thompson in the next two weeks, said Democratic Sen. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota.
"The American consumer is being cheated, and the FDA is driving the getaway car," said Dorgan, who derided FDA "scare tactics" in trying to shut down drug importation.
Dorgan and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona are lead sponsors of a Senate bill aimed at legalizing the cross-border drug trade. The House of Representatives, which passed similar legislation twice before only to see the effort die in the Senate, is also poised to take up the measure again this year.
Despite the success of the importation measure in the House in the past, the effort is considered a long shot given the strength of the pharmaceutical companies' "600 well-paid lobbyists" and "tens and tens of millions of dollars" the industry spends on advertising, said Rep. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent.
The pharmaceutical industry has blocked efforts on Capitol Hill to open trade to lower-cost drugs or to impose price controls on drugs in the United States.
The industry succeeded in blocking a provision in the Medicare reform law, which President Bush signed in December, that would have allowed the federal government to negotiate lower prices for the elderly.