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Pawlenty releases plan for lower-priced prescription drugs
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"We seek the world for good deals in the marketplace," Gov. Pawlenty said. "Why should we not seek the world for prescription medications?" (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has unveiled a plan that would make it easier for Minnesotans to buy lower priced prescription drugs from Canada. Pawlenty wants the state to create a Web site that lists Canadian pharmacies that meet state standards for safety. He's also asking state officials to look at importing foreign-made, government-approved drugs for Minnesotans. Critics say the plan isn't safe for consumers and could endanger the economic health of pharmacies across Minnesota.

St. Paul, Minn. — Canandian consumers pay less than Americans for many prescription drugs because of government-imposed price controls. States aren't in a position to control drugs that are largely regulated at the federal level. But Gov. Pawlenty says Minnesota can help its citizens reach beyond the state's borders for better deals. "People in commerce seek the world for good deals. Why should we not seek the world for good deals with respect to prescription medicines as long as it's safe and otherwise appropriate?" Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty's proposal is scaled back from what he originally suggested last month. At the time he said he wanted the state to reimport drugs from foreign countries. That plan that would have likely faced legal and regulatory challenges from the federal government.

Pawlenty hopes individual Minnesotans, business owners and state workers will take advantage of the potential cost savings. Consumers would log onto the Web site and choose an approved pharmacy. Consumers would then deal directly with the pharmacy for the drugs they need. He says it's a good first step in addressing escalating drug costs.

Steve Schondelmeyer, director of the University of Minnesota's College of Pharmacy, says he expects other states to follow Pawlenty's lead. He says prescription drug costs have been rising faster than inflation in the last decade. Schondelmeyer says that trend, and a weak economy, have forced everyone to re-examine their budgets

"It's not just states. I think the citizens of the state are also frustrated and they're trying to be price-sensitive buyers saying, 'Hey price is an issue to us.' If we know a place where we can go get a good that works similar or the same as what we had at a lower price. We're willing to do that," Schondelmeyer.

Officials with the Food and Drug Administration and the lobbying arm of drug companies say Pawlenty is not considering the plan's potential risks.

Wanda Mobius, the communications director for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, says the proposal could harm the consumers of imported drugs.

"Today's announcement, with the use of the Internet, raises more questions about the safety and security of illegally imported drugs. The Federal Trade Commission has said that internet scams are one of the fastest growing crimes in the nation and now we're talking about buying life saving pharmaceuticals over the Internet," she said.

Mobius says states could be held liable if an individual is injured after taking an imported drug.

Attorney General Mike Hatch reviewed Pawlenty's plan and believes it meets legal standards. Pawlenty says he's confident safety concerns will be addressed.

The announcement also puts Pawlenty at odds with the Bush administration and others within his party. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., says the best way to lower the cost of prescription drugs is by passing a Medicare prescription drug benefit in Congress. House and Senate leaders are currently negotiating their differences over such a benefit in conference committee. "I applaud the governor for wanting to do the right thing but I have certainly cautioned him to say 'Let's not make promises out there we can't keep.' I can tell you the FDA still doubts whether this, in fact, can be done," he said.

Pharmacists in Minnesota are also voicing concern over the governor's plan. Julie Johnson, with the Minnesota Pharmacist's Association, says some pharmacies, especially in rural areas, will be forced to close if Minnesotans start buying their drugs from Canadian pharmacies.

"We've kind of been described as collatoral damage. This is unintentional, I believe, but we will be vehement about reminding them that this is real, this is going to happen if that plan takes place as he would like," according to Johnson.

Several seniors, who attended Pawlenty's announcement, applauded Pawlenty's decision. One says she's pleased that several governors are finally listening to their concerns.

Minnesota's Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno says he hopes to have the Web site up and running in a matter of months.

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