Governor Advocates Canadian Drug Imports
Schwarzenegger outlines a dual-approach to lowering drug prices
SACRAMENTO - 01/06/06 - California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is urging the federal government to amend current laws restricting the importation by Americans of affordable prescription drugs from Canada and other countries.
In a letter to four ranking US Congressional leaders - Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi - the governor acknowledged that his own efforts to lower the cost of prescription drugs have been ''insufficient.''
Federal action, the governor said, ''is necessary to address this increasingly difficult situation for our citizens, employers, and governments.''
The letter comes nearly a year and a half after he wrote to then US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, complaining that US consumers unfairly pay the cost of developing new medicines that benefit the residents of other countries, including Canada and European nations.
International pharmacies are known to sell prescription drugs for as much as 75% less than pharmacies in California.
''Sixteen months later,'' Schwarzenegger said in the letter, ''drug prices continue to escalate" and "there is no evidence that the federal government has been able to bring more equity to the global pharmaceutical marketplace."
Congress, he said, "must act to allow Americans to import safe prescription drugs.''
Schwarzenegger maintains that it is a violation of federal law to import prescription drugs, however, ten states including Illinois, Wisconsin, and Maine actually sponsor Internet websites to inform residents on how to purchase prescription drugs from pharmacies in Canada.
In the letter, the governor outlined a dual-approach to lowering drug prices. Congress, he wrote, needs to ''vigorously support'' pharmaceutical and biotech companies that refuse to sell products to countries imposing price controls, while Congress "must pass legislation to allow the importation of prescription drugs."
Schwarzenegger has opposed efforts to impose price controls on prescription drugs in the US, saying that would harm the state's globally-competitive biotech industry and give a ''chilling effect'' on research and development of life-saving medicines.
A measure Schwarzenegger supported last year, known as the California Rx proposal, would have lowered the price of prescription drugs to uninsured, low-income residents. But the bill, sponsored by Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, was defeated in the Senate Health Committee, which she chairs.
Critics have dismissed the governor's letter, which administration officials say he will highlight in his State of the State address Thursday, as a transparent political maneuver.
"It's a ploy," said State Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Glendale), whose bill, AB 73, would have required the state to set up a website directing Californians to pharmacies in Canada, Ireland and the UK to purchase drugs.
Schwarzenegger vetoed the measure last year.
"This [the letter] is a publicity stunt," said Frommer. "It's another effort from the governor to make voters think he is on their side, when in fact, he is not doing anything that will help them."
Frommer said several states are already helping their residents purchase drugs from abroad. The governor, he said, is asking Congress to take action while continuing to block efforts to help Californians purchase drugs abroad.
Some healthcare advocates had similar reactions to the governor's letter.
Anthony Wright, executive director of Sacramento-based Health Access, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income Californians, said that though the letter to Congress is welcome, the governor needs to work harder to reform the state's system.
"He can take meaningful action here in California, if he chooses to part ways with the drug companies," Wright said.
He also questioned how much sway Schwarzenegger has with Congress.
When the governor wrote a public letter to members of Congress urging them to reject hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to Medicaid, every California Republican voted for the cuts.
More than 2 million Americans are currently estimated to already be buying drugs from Canada. The Bush Administration has resisted efforts in other states to establish trial importation programs, saying that the government cannot guarantee the safety of those medicines.
Nonetheless, leaders in other parts of the country have been defying Washington.
When Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich launched his state's website directing people to Canadian pharmacies, he slammed the FDA, saying, "They've acted more like the guardian of the drug companies and their anti-free-market price structure instead of protecting the health and safety of American consumers."
Canadian Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh sais recently that he will pursue legislation in Parliament to ban export of prescription drugs to the US by requiring Canadian doctors to examine patients before writing prescriptions.
Under current practice, Canadians physicians co-sign Internet orders after reviewing a prescription that had already been written by an American doctor.
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