Civil disobedience

September 23, 2004

MONTGOMERY COUNTY officials know their scheme to save money on drug benefits for county workers by ordering cheap medicines from Canada is only a short-term fix.

They figure they have a year, maybe two, before so many other American communities similarly thumb their noses at federal authorities trying to block these imports that the demand will be too great for Canadian pharmacies to meet.

But in the meantime, the county may be able to shave as much as $20 million a year off its $70 million annual tab for employee and retiree pharmaceutical costs. That's a lot of tax money, which could be put to other uses - or not collected at all.

And at its heart, the politically charged debate over reimporting U.S.-made drugs from Canada to take advantage of that nation's price controls is simply about the money. With the federal government refusing to design a more practical plan to make medicines affordable here, why shouldn't local officials pursue the best alternative available to them?

It's illegal, sort of like throwing overtaxed tea into Boston Harbor a couple of centuries ago was illegal. When governments are unresponsive to a huge and growing problem that affects virtually everyone, their edicts deserve to be challenged.

There is something akin to symbolism in this rebellion spreading to such a bastion of federal officialdom - home of the Food and Drug Administration, which warns it can't ensure the safety of imported medicines.

No one can say Montgomery County doesn't understand what's at stake. In fact, County Councilman Tom Perez, the main sponsor of the reimportation initiative, is a former official of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who is familiar with the issue inside-out.

A special committee studied reimportation schemes undertaken by other communities for months before Mr. Perez's colleagues on the council voted 7-2 this week to direct that bid proposals be developed.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan is not enthusiastic about violating federal law, and has asked the state to seek a waiver, which may act as another form of pressure on federal authorities.

It's doubtful federal policy will change before January, though, when the council hopes to begin offering Canadian imports to county workers. President Bush and the Republican-led Congress have staunchly resisted any form of price controls that cut into profits of the pharmaceutical industry, and went so far as to forbid Medicare from using its buying power to seek discounts.

But the FDA quietly looks the other way when elderly Americans return from shopping sprees in Canadian pharmacies or when cities such as Springfield, Mass., and Montgomery, Ala., import in bulk for their citizens. It will be harder for the FDA to ignore the county in which it resides, but if the politics suit, it can be done - waiver or not.

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