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Monday, March 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle to look at Canadian drugs

Seattle Times staff reporter

Facts on Canadian Drug Forum


Seattle City Councilman Tom Rasmussen will host a panel discussion with local, state and federal officials on the feasibility of allowing city employees to buy prescription drugs from Canada. The discussion will feature a briefing on potential cost savings for the city and an update on federal and state legislation on the issue.

When: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. tomorrow

Where: Council Chambers, Seattle City Hall (entrance on Fifth Avenue between James and Cherry streets)

Broadcasts: The meeting will be broadcast on the Seattle Channel 21 or 28 depending on where you live. It will be shown on the Web at www.cityofseattle.net/council

Panel: Michael Albano, former mayor, Springfield, Mass.

State Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle.

Lori Whittaker M.D., Office of Congressman Jim McDermott, D-Wash.

Dorothy Teeter, chief of operations, Public Health — Seattle & King County.

Mark McDermott, senior policy adviser, Office of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

Patricia Kieval, Co-chair of the City's Health Care Committee.

Sally Fox, Seattle Personnel Department.

The rising cost of prescription drugs is giving the city of Seattle a pain in the budget.

Some city leaders believe they've found a remedy: getting city workers to buy their medicines from Canada, where prices average 30 to 80 percent less for many drugs.

Springfield, Mass., was the first city in this country to put in place such a program. The former mayor of the Bay State's third-largest city has this advice for Seattle: Go for it.

"I would say without question or hesitation to move ahead," said Michael Albano, who will tout Springfield's pioneering program at a Seattle City Hall forum tomorrow.

Albano said the program has saved Springfield more than $1 million since it took effect in September. He has firsthand knowledge of such savings. His son is diabetic, and the program saved Albano's family a total of $225 in co-payments and the city $852 in cheaper drugs and medical supplies purchased from Canada.

Organized by Seattle City Councilman Tom Rasmussen, the forum will explore the feasibility of importing prescription drugs from Canada. Rasmussen, who chairs the council's health committee, wants to look at the Springfield model because mounting health-care costs are putting pressure on Seattle's tight budget.

Costs keep climbing

The health-care bill for city employees was over $80 million last year and is expected to increase by 12 percent this year, Rasmussen said. Prescription-drug costs increased from $6 million in 2001 to $7.3 million in 2002, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available. Drug costs are expected to keep climbing.

A Springfield-like program could save Seattle taxpayers as much as $1.35 million a year, according to an estimate by Seattle's Personnel Department. City employees might also save up to $276,000 in co-payments.

Other estimates, based on limited participation by city employees, show total annual savings ranging from $378,000 to $862,000 for the city and employees.

What are the risks?

But a pharmaceutical-industry spokesman warned that while Albano has good intentions, his proposals pose potential problems.

Importing drugs from Canada could create both safety and liability risks for Seattle. In addition, if Seattle and other cities and states join the "Buy Canadian" movement, it might end up hurting research in the U.S., where about half of all new medicines are developed, according to Jeff Trewhitt, the industry spokesman.

"Seattle alone is not a problem. But if a number of communities join the bandwagon, then we've got a problem," said Trewhitt of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, known as PhRMA.

The danger is that if American customers flock to Canada, where drug prices are capped by the government, then U.S. companies won't get the revenues they need to maintain their costly research.

In the end, Trewhitt said the city and its employees would be wiser to shop for better deals at local pharmacies and with private health insurers than buying drugs from Canada.

Rasmussen said he wants to find out if such claims amount to "fear-mongering" by the industry. That's why he wants to hold several public events before he proposes a city policy.

Albano already has his mind made up. "There's no downside. There are no safety concerns here. It's all about industry profit," he said.

How it would work

Springfield's system is simple and voluntary, he stressed. In Seattle, it would work like this:

An employee would go to a local physician and get a prescription for 90 days. ("If you need something right now, like an antibiotic for a baby, you'd go through your local pharmacy," Albano noted.)

That prescription would then be faxed to a Canadian company. (Springfield works with a single firm, CanaRx.) That company would have a doctor review and approve the prescription. Then, within a week, the drugs would be delivered to the U.S. customer by a parcel service.

Employees would pay their co-pay by credit card. The city of Seattle would be billed for the rest.

While the industry warns of dangers, Albano notes that thousands of Americans, including many older Seattleites, now go to Canada to get prescriptions filled. He said their experience shows that Canadian drugs aren't any more dangerous than the same pills sold in the U.S.

Insurance companies were not an obstacle, Albano said.

"They were not going to get in the middle," he said. "They've been silent partners, probably hoping the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) would step in."

The FDA has said it's not legal to import drugs from Canada. But Albano said the FDA never cracked down on Springfield and only made "veiled threats through the media."

Albano said he never intended to be a rebel. But since he left the mayor's office in January, he has set up a public-affairs consulting business and advised lawmakers in several cities and states.

"I do feel with action in places like Seattle we can build momentum and defeat the pharmaceutical lobby much like the tobacco lobby," he said.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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