Gov. Brian Schweitzer took yet another stab Tuesday at the issue of prescription-drug prices, this time announcing he and a North Dakota senator are asking federal authorities to OK a “pilot program” of importing lower-priced drugs from Canada for sale in the two states.
Schweitzer, a Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., wrote a letter Monday to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, asking her to approve the program for two years.
Schweitzer said the pharmaceutical industry is “gouging” its U.S. customers with the highest prices in the world for brand-name drugs, and that pharmacies in Montana and North Dakota would like the chance to import drugs from Canada and charge their customers less money.
Dorgan also said Canada uses virtually the same safety measures as the United States, yet charges much lower prices.
“Governor Schweitzer and I believe that the American people ought to have the freedom to have access to the identical prescription drugs, the same pill put in the same bottle made by the same company, when it is sold for a fraction of the price in most other countries in the world,” Dorgan said.
The letter to Sebelius said the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill gives her the authority to certify drug importation from certain countries as “safe and effective.”
A Health and Human Services Department spokesperson from Washington, D.C., would say only that the agency has received the request and is reviewing it.
Tuesday’s announcement is the third time in the past two months that Schweitzer has proposed schemes to have Montanans or Montana state government acquire prescription drugs at lower prices.
In March, he asked Sebelius to allow Montana to import prescription drugs from Canada for use in state-financed programs like Medicaid or the state employee health plan.
Then, three weeks ago, Schweitzer said perhaps the U.S. Veterans Administration medical system could buy prescription drugs at its reduced prices and resell them to Montana pharmacies. VA officials said later that federal law prohibits the agencies from distributing drugs to anyone other than its military veteran customers.
HHS officials have yet to respond to Schweitzer’s initial request to allow importation of drugs for state-financed programs.
When asked whether this week’s proposal is taking the place of his earlier request, Schweitzer said it’s an additional request, with the added weight of Dorgan behind it.
Dorgan, who, like Schweitzer has often criticized the high price of prescription drugs in America, said he and the governor decided recently to try a proposal linking both of their states. It could save the two states’ citizens as much as $400 million a year on their collective $1 billion in drug costs, he said.
“We have a substantial history of our people looking north and seeing the same drug sell for a fraction of the price,” Dorgan said. “I hope that we can meet personally with the secretary. I hope that she would work through this and do the right thing.”
A spokesman for the pharmaceutical industry said Tuesday that drug-importation programs run by states have “produced little or no savings for the few consumers that have utilized such programs,” and that drugs said to be imported from Canadian pharmacies sometimes turn out to be fakes and potentially unsafe.
“Advocates of importation should carefully consider whether or not they want to play Russian roulette with patients’ lives,” said Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
Schweitzer said the majority of prescription drugs purchased in America already are manufactured overseas, and that legitimate Canadian outlets should offer a safe product.
“This is an example where less than 2 percent of the population could try out a plan for a couple of years,” he said. “What better way of proving or disproving (the industry claims) than by having two states import the medicine from Canada?”