Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Boston looks to Canada for Rx drugs

By Karen Testa
The Associated Press

BOSTON - City officials hope to begin buying prescription drugs from Canada for thousands of city employees and retirees by next summer, an official said Tuesday.

Mayor Thomas Menino was expected to endorse such a plan at a hearing of the City Council late Tuesday, according to City Councilor Michael Ross. The councilwas expected to support the proposal.

The program, slated to begin in July, will cut about $1 million each year from the city's $61 million prescription drug bill, according to city estimates.

Boston would become only the second U.S. city - after Springfield, about 90 miles west - to turn to Canada for drugs. Springfield Mayor Michael Albano estimates that the policy has already reduced the city's $18 million prescription drug bill by about $750,000.

Menino's program is both financial and political, saving the city money while embarrassing regulators and the drug industry. "The pharmaceutical manufacturers should be more sensitive to consumers' needs," the mayor wrote in comments prepared for his address to the City Council.

An official with the U.S. Food and Drug Association said the safety of prescription drugs imported from Canada cannot be ensured.

"We haven't seen the Boston plan, but the mayor should know that under all legislation - including the new Medicare bill - it is both illegal and unsafe to import prescription drugs from Canada," Peter Pitts, the FDA's associate commissioner for external affairs, said. "In fact, it is illegal because it is unsafe."

But Ross said if more cities and states take similar action to Boston and Springfield, the drug industry will be forced to review its pricing policies.

"The federal government should be ashamed of itself," Ross said. "They should be bending over backwards to help us ensure it's safe."

Boston's 15,000 employees and retirees have drug costs covered through outside health plans, which are the choice of most employees, or directly by the city. The second group, about 7,000 people who are mostly retirees, will have the option of buying from Canada.

The practice is illegal, although Congress has told the Department of Health and Human services to review whether drugs can be safely imported from Canada.

"The unknown concerns us - where these things are being made, how they're being shipped, how they're being stored," said Tom McGinnis, the FDA's director of pharmacy affairs.

Wanda Moebius, a spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said Menino would do a greater service to employees by telling them about programs to aid patients who can't afford drugs.

"There are more responsible ways to help those people than to flout the law and flout safety and encourage people to get their prescription drugs from what purports to be Canada," she said.

But Albano praised Boston's decision.

"Not only is it good for Boston, but this will send shock waves around the country," he told the Boston Globe.

In Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich is lobbying the federal government to let the state buy drugs at lower prices in Canada for its 230,000 state employees and retirees.

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