Mother, may I?

April 05, 2004

THE MARYLAND Senate has much to learn about protest gestures. To vent their ire at the high cost of U.S. prescription drugs, senators voted last week to buy cheaper medicines through Canada. But only if the federal government - which staunchly opposes such purchases - grants permission.

That's like conducting a hunger strike only between meals, staging a sit-in just so long as no one is inconvenienced, running away from home if Mom says it's all right.

Have a little gumption here. Other states and cities seeking to obtain cheaper American-made drugs for their residents through Canada have given the feds the raspberries. Bold action is needed, they say, to make clear that the federal policy of kowtowing to the pharmaceutical industry is intolerable and unsustainable.

As state Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini put it: "If we're going to rattle sabers, why not use a real saber instead of an empty one?"

Better yet, why not take steps to bring real relief to Maryland consumers and taxpayers by leveraging the buying power of the state to get a better deal on drugs right here at home?

A national revolt is under way to bring about a more rational arrangement for dealing with an industry that Mr. Sabatini says has "all the social conscience of a garden snake."

Drugs developed in this country with federal research grants and protected from competition by U.S. patent laws are sold more cheaply in Canada and many other countries because those governments negotiate prices with drugmakers.

Private insurance companies in this country also get drug discounts because they, too, demand them. The only drug customers paying retail are the uninsured and public agencies, which have been hamstrung by the Republican aversion to price controls and the political muscle of the highly profitable pharmaceutical lobby.

A little flexing of that muscle on the Medicare drug bill passed by Congress last year resulted in a prohibition against the federal government using its buying power to obtain discounts on the medicines it has nurtured into being. That's some greed.

Little wonder that nearly half the states are trying to break this stranglehold through agreements with Canadian suppliers, and two states are already facilitating Internet purchases. Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat, favored a similarly bold course before his bill was watered down.

Canadian pharmacies are not the long-term answer for America's drug problem, though. It's up to America's leaders to drive a better bargain. Since President Bush and Congress are unwilling to do that, Maryland can strike out on its own - negotiating on behalf of Medicaid recipients as well as public employees.

Mr. Sabatini says he's eager for the task. The General Assembly ought to take him up on his offer - instead of misleading voters with hollow gestures.

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