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Pawlenty drug plan gets warm reception from U.S. senators
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Gov. Pawlenty testified about his plan to reimport drugs from Canada to Minnesota in front of a U.S. Senate committee Thursday. His plan received a warm welcome from most members of the committee. (Photo courtesy of Gov. Pawlenty's office)
Some of those most vocal in support of allowing Americans to buy cheaper prescription drugs from Canada have been Midwestern governors. They were greatly disappointed earlier this week when a House backed-plan to allow reimportation was dropped from the final Medicare bill. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty told lawmakers Thursday that he would fight for the right to reimport drugs from Canada -- even if the Food and Drug Administration continues to maintain that doing so is illegal.

Washington, D.C. — Gov. Pawlenty says the Medicare bill is a good first step in providing prescription drug coverage to seniors. But he worries that it does little to change the cost of drugs. Pawlenty told the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday that he plans to create a Web site listing Canadian pharmacies that meet Minnesota safety standards.

Pawlenty says he isn't backing down from FDA threats, and he compared the reimportation efforts to the Boston Tea Party.

"If they sue me I'm willing to be sued. If they want to throw me in prison, that's something I want to give some pause to," Pawlenty said. "It may not deter us, but I at least need to think about that, so I'd like to get some signals from them before they prosecute me."

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Image Pawlenty's visit to Canada

Pawlenty insists his plan will save the state tens of millions of dollars a year in drug costs. He wants to have the Web site up and running by the end of the year, and told committee chair Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that he plans to implement the plan without seeking legislative approval.

"Let me suggest that you do," McCain told the governor, "just so that you get that stamp of approval."

A stamp which McCain says could safeguard the drug plan from legal challenge.

Other senators were full of praise for Pawlenty's proposal.

"I want to commend you for your assertive and bold leadership," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. "It's just regrettable that we haven't reached a point here in the Congress and with FDA to remove those hurdles and obstacles, to give you a clear path toward doing what you need to do on behalf of the citizens of Minnesota."

Pawlenty also got nods of approval from McCain and his colleagues for suggesting the Senate authorize pilot projects in a number of states to test the reimportation idea.

There's a difference between paying a premium and being a chump - and we're being played.
- Gov. Tim Pawlenty

"We'll road-test these theories ... in a year and a half we'll evaluate it, or in two years we'll evaluate it. We're not afraid of the results. I hope the industry and the FDA isn't either -- and then we can see."

Some Minnesota seniors are disappointed that Congress isn't likely to include a reimportation provision in the Medicare legislation. They say they back Pawlenty's efforts, and are even willing to take their fight one step further.

"Well, we have one member who's perfectly willing to go to jail to test it," says Barbara Kaufman, president of the Minnesota Senior Federation.

The group has been sponsoring drug-buying bus trips to Canada for eight years. Her members have been lobbying Congress to allow her group and other seniors to legally buy drugs from Canada and other countries.

Kaufman says she'll continue to buy her blood pressure and allergy medicine from Canada, until Congress passes a law that forces drug companies to lower their prices.

"One of my real concerns about this bill is -- they pass it, they go home and they say to the voters, 'Look, we gave you a prescription drug benefit in Medicare.' It turns out to be not much of a benefit at all, but they're still going to use that like they provided a great service," says Kaufman.

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Image Barbara Kaufman

Other governors say they'll also continue to put pressure on the FDA on this issue. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack charges that Congress folded to pressure from the prescription drug companies, when it didn't allow states to import foreign drugs without first gaining FDA approval. Nevertheless, Vilsack says he's meeting with FDA officials Friday to discuss his state's reimportation proposal.

"This is a way of dealing with the issues that have been created as a barrier to us accessing fair priced drugs," says Vilsack. "We're going to remove those barriers and people are going to work with us, or we're going to expose them for being supporters of the pharmaceutical industry."

An official with the drug industry trade group, PHRMA, says reimportation is dangerous, and says the group will oppose any state efforts to circumvent the FDA ban.

It does appear highly unlikely the FDA will approve Gov. Vilsack's proposal. The agency has repeatedly said it can't ensure the safety of any imported foreign drugs.

FDA officials, though, say they may be willing to work with some governors. During the Senate Commerce Committee hearing, FDA Deputy Commissioner John Taylor told Pawlenty he's willing to meet with him before or after the Web site is launched.

"We obviously respect the governor's goals and wishes, and look forward to sitting down with you and not putting you in jail. I'm hoping that we can at least express and articulate our concerns," said Taylor.

Several other state politicians pledge to continue to push this issue, even if current Medicare legislation being negotiated becomes law. In fact, a number of state attorneys general say they're investigating drug companies that limit sales to Canada, to see if any antitrust or trade laws are being violated.

(Reporter Max Cacas at Capitol Hill Bureau contributed to this report)

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