Drive to import drugs expands

Baltimore County's Smith envisions regional plan

Duncan wants Md. to get waiver

October 14, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

As local and state governments across the country scramble to stem the rising costs of prescription drugs, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. is asking his counterparts in Maryland's other large jurisdictions to consider allowing residents to get their medicine from pharmacies in Canada and Europe.

Smith wrote a letter this week to other members of the "Big 7" - the state's six largest counties and Baltimore City - proposing that they invite Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich to Maryland to explain his state's plan, which gives senior citizens access to drugs from approved foreign pharmacies at discounts of as much as 50 percent.

"The twin missions of the Illinois plan are affordability and quality assurance, and if those aims are met, we should find a way to lower costs for all people," Smith said. "This is an issue that affects citizens in every age group and every income level."

Smith's suggestion comes three weeks after the Montgomery County Council passed a resolution calling on the county to let its employees buy Canadian drugs. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said he would first ask Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to seek a waiver from the Food and Drug Administration to allow the drug importation.

Duncan also announced that the county would distribute prescription drug discount cards to all residents, a plan he modeled after a similar program in Nassau County, N.Y. The cards are expected to provide discounts of about 20 percent.

Since Oct. 4, Illinois has let seniors without drug coverage order refills for more than 100 commonly used drugs through a state clearinghouse, which orders the prescriptions from 45 approved pharmacies in Canada, England, Scotland and Ireland. The state estimates savings of between 25 percent and 50 percent.

"The governor sent [inspectors] to Canada and Europe to see if they can do this safely, and after careful review they determined we could," said Blagojevich spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch.

Wisconsin has signed on to Illinois' plan, and Rausch said four other states have expressed interest in it.

Duncan said he is eager to work with Smith and other local leaders on ways to reduce drug costs, but he added that ultimately the best solution would be statewide action.

"We need the state to step forward to ask for the waiver. We need the state to come up with a discount program," Duncan said. "Hopefully the Big 7 will put some pressure on the state to step up and do something here."

Spokeswomen for the Anne Arundel and Howard county executives said drug costs are a major issue but that the executives have not had time to consider Smith's proposal.

Prescription drug costs became a pressing issue for the state last week when Ehrlich budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. told legislators that Maryland will have to increase charges on state employees for prescription drugs because of rising costs.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor has not taken a formal position on drug reimportation plans but that he "does believe there are serious legal and safety questions that have to be addressed."

Scott McKibin, who works on the prescription drug program in Blagojevich's office, said Illinois researched FDA opinions on reimportation when crafting its plan. He said the FDA has sent letters to Illinois officials objecting to the program, but it has taken no action.

More than a million people nationwide now buy prescription drugs from other countries, McKibin said. The Illinois plan at least ensures they buy drugs from reliable sources, he said.

Maryland Citizens Health Initiative President Vincent DeMarco said his group supported Duncan's efforts and applauds Smith's work on the issue. He said he is confident that the pressure from local officials and residents will spur the General Assembly to enact a discount drug plan this year.

But he said he is disturbed that Ehrlich has not taken the lead on the issue.

Bernie Horn, policy director at the Center for Policy Alternatives, a Washington think tank, said talk of signing on to the Illinois program is premature.

The program is "clearly illegal," he said, but he suspects the FDA hasn't shut it down because of the presidential election.

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