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10 states seek prescriptions from Canada

By Associated Press
Published December 12, 2003

Canadian drugs
Should it be legal for American drug companies to purchase prescription drugs from Canada?

ATLANTA - Ten states said Thursday they are exploring ways to buy cheap prescription drugs from Canada and make them widely available to Americans, even though importing the medicines is illegal.

Representatives from the states met with five Canadian drug companies at an Atlanta hotel Thursday to hear their pitch on how to sell the drugs safely and within the law.

The meeting comes two days after Boston and New Hampshire announced their intention to buy drugs from Canada.

The states at the meeting did not suggest they would make a similar move - buying Canadian drugs without government approval. But they want to find ways to persuade the Food and Drug Administration to allow more drug importation and make it legal.

The states - Illinois, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Alabama, North Carolina, Vermont, Ohio, Delaware and Louisiana - are looking north of the border to buy prescription drugs for their employees and for people who are on Medicaid or other assistance programs.

The Canadian drug companies told state officials they could offer dozens of drugs for as much as 40 percent to 60 percent less than they cost in the United States. Drugs in Canada are significantly cheaper because of government price controls.

"Drugs are cheaper in Canada - how do we bring these drugs into the states?" said Tom Susman, acting administration secretary for West Virginia. "If they work better, and the cost is cheaper, I think it's legitimate."

West Virginia could become the first state to provide local pharmacies with Canadian drugs, which they could sell to state residents.

The FDA says it cannot guarantee the safety of imported medicines and has warned states about violating the law.

Only pharmaceutical companies are allowed to bring their drugs back into the United States. Canadian drug companies sell drugs to thousands of Americans, but federal regulators have chosen not to prosecute the buyers.

Numerous pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer Inc. and Eli Lilly & Co., have tried to stop the flow of drugs from Canada into the United States by limiting the amount of medicines they sell north of the border.

Supporters of the idea charge that the FDA, the Bush administration and some influential lawmakers who are trying to undermine such efforts are being swayed by the politically powerful drug manufacturers.

The state of Vermont has a plan to petition the FDA to allow it to buy drugs from Canada on a trial basis and put pressure on Congress, said Cynthia D. LaWare, commissioner of the Vermont personnel department.

"There's no question there are significant hurdles," she said. "But the FDA has been challenged to find alternatives."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert on Thursday urged U.S. action to bring about changes in Canada's prescription drug price control policies, which he said were unfair to Americans.

Hastert, R-Ill., met with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and pharmaceutical industry representatives to discuss how to narrow the gap in prices Canadians and Americans pay for their drugs.

"It's a very thorny problem, but if we don't solve the problem we just get ourselves in a more difficult situation," he said.

Zoellick indicated his office was not ready to pressure Canada.

"We're trying to get a sense of the scope of the problem and ways we can address it," he said.

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