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Saturday, January 31, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bill looks to Canada for cheaper prescriptions

Seattle Times staff reporter

Washington may join about a dozen other states clamoring to take advantage of lower prescription-drug prices in Canada, even though federal regulations outlaw medicine importation.

State Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington, has introduced a bill that would permit certain state agencies to purchase prescription drugs from Canada for distribution in state health-care programs.

The measure, House Bill 2469, also would create a state-sponsored Web site to help Washington citizens buy from Canadian wholesalers and pharmacies.

"We buy cars from Mexico, toys from China and clothes from Singapore," Simpson said. "It's time to extend the free market to the purchase of prescription drugs."

Cliff Webster, a lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, pointed out that importation violates the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, a bill co-sponsor, said the proposal simply ensures that state infrastructure is in place if the federal government approves drug importation.

Last week, the House Health Care Committee voted 8-5 to approve the bill, which was sent to the House Appropriations Committee on Monday to determine the costs and savings associated with the proposal.

In Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich has asked for a waiver to permit drug importation for state workers and retirees — without a positive response. Although no states have purchased from Canada, two cities — Montgomery, Ala., and Springfield, Mass. — are operating drug import programs.

The federal government has threatened the city of Montgomery with legal action if it doesn't abandon its import program, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter to the Canadian company that provides drugs to Springfield.

This week, a California senator was to unveil legislation allowing the state to buy drugs from Canada for state prisons.

Congress authorized importation of medicines as part of last November's sweeping Medicare overhaul, but implementation hinges on approval from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

The FDA says Thompson has balked due to patient-safety concerns.

Import critics, most notably the federal Food and Drug Administration, fear that opening U.S. borders to imported medicines could compromise consumer safety.

"As long as the distributor is outside of U.S. government control, it cannot be trusted," said Lis Merten, Northwest regional director for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.

Because there is no way to guarantee that drugs shipped from other countries meet domestic quality standards, counterfeits and contaminated or ineffective products could increasingly reach U.S. medicine cabinets, the American Pharmacists Association warned in a written statement.

"The state should also be aware of its liability" if consumers are harmed, said Webster, the pharmaceutical lobbyist.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Jim Clements, R-Selah, said the state could help close the budget gap and save taxpayer money by seeking cheaper prices across the border.

More than 1 million Americans already purchase prescription drugs from Canada. Those consumers can save 30 to 80 percent on the cost of drugs because of Canadian price controls and a favorable U.S.-Canada exchange rate.

Sherry Appleton, of Poulsbo, Kitsap County, helps her 87-year-old mother buy her prescription drugs from a Canadian pharmacy's Web site.

Appleton said her "experience has been wonderful," noting that her mother's breast-cancer treatment costs one-sixth as much in Canada as it does in the U.S.

"It was the exact same medication, in the manufacturer's bottle," Appleton said.

Drug importation is a Band-Aid rather than a cure for seniors struggling to fill pricey prescriptions, said Lauren Moughon, advocacy director for the AARP.

"In the end, we will have to bring prices down in our own country," she said.

Webster believes the solution resides within the nation's borders.

"If price motivates, people should shop around their neighborhood pharmacies," he said. "There is a significant range of prices at the retail levels."

Allison Peryea: 360-236-8169

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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