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State's portal to Canadian pharmacies now open
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Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno unveils the state's new Web site portal for purchasing prescription drugs from Canada. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Gov. Pawlenty has released details of the first phase of his plan to help Minnesotans import less expensive prescription drugs from Canada. The governor showcased a state Web site that lists two Canadian pharmacies that have 829 different medicines for sale to consumers. Minnesota is the first state in the nation to offer such a plan. Some critics say the site doesn't do enough to help Minnesotans obtain cheaper prescriptions. Others oppose the site and say they're contemplating legal action to shut it down.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty says the first-of-its-kind state Website -- -- will allow Minnesotans to import cheaper drugs from two Canadian mail-order pharmacies. One is in Calgary, the other is in British Columbia.

Canadian medicine is usually more affordable than drugs sold in the United States because the Canadian government establishes price controls. Pawlenty says Minnesotans would be able to browse the Web site and see if their prescription medicine is being offered. He says the plan will help control the rapid growth in health care costs.

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Image Gov. Pawlenty

"This is not a silver bullet, it's not going to solve all of our health care pressures and problems, but it's a siginificant piece of progress but it is going to make it easier and more affordable to access these prescription medicines," Pawlenty said.

The Web site will offer nearly 900 different prescription medicines. There will also be 3,100 different dosage choices of those drugs. Consumers can log onto the Web site or call a toll free number to access the prices.

They'll also be required to fill out their medical history and provide a valid prescription. They can't, however, order medicine directly through the Web site. They would have to mail or fax their order to the pharmacy.

Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno says consumers will be able to obtain drugs for chronic conditions. Temperature sensitive medicines or narcotics will not be offered. Goodno says his department examined eight different Canadian pharmacies. He says the state could be exposed to liability if something goes wrong with the program. But Goodno says he believes the two pharmacies will meet state safety standards.

It's a bit of disappointment that that's the strongest thing that the governor who said he's prepared to lead the rebellion is willing to do.
- Cheryl Rivers, National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices

"This is a safer mechanism that's in place with regard to the pharmacies have agreed to take part in our program. Then you will find with regard to doing mail order in the United States," Goodno said.

Both Goodno and Pawlenty say they hope to add additional pharmacies in the future. Pawlenty says he's negotiating with the state employee unions to see if the state can save money in its prescription drug plan. He would also like to import drugs directly from Canada, which would require a change in federal law.

Pawlenty may be taking a risk with just the first phase of his plan. The Food and Drug Administration has expressed legal concerns about the Internet site. FDA Associate Commissioner William Hubbard says he's concerned over the safety of any drugs imported from foreign countries.

"Certainly the governor is attempting to identify phrmacies that he believes are going to provide safe drugs and we understand that. However we remain concerned that these foreign pharmacies do not provide the level of assurance of safety that one would get in the U.S," Hubbard said.

Hubbard wouldn't say if his agency will take legal action against the state.

Members of the Minnesota Pharmacists Association are also expressing concern over Pawlenty's proposal. Tim Gallagher is on the association's board and is vice president of Astrup Drug in Austin. He says several local pharmacists are considering a lawsuit over the proposal. He says many local pharmacies will suffer financially from the plan.

"They're just kind of haning on by a shoestring and if they start losing business to Canadian mail order pharmacies, they're going to go out of business. There's no doubt about it," Gallagher said.

Gallagher didn't specify the basis of the lawsuit or who would be involved.

Other organizations say the first phase of Pawlenty's proposal is nothing new. Cheryl Rivers, with the National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices, says several organizations have links to Canadian pharmacies. Rivers' organization lobbies for cheaper medicine. She says she's disappointed that Pawlenty and other governors aren't going farther with their proposals.

"It's a bit of disappointment that that's the strongest thing that the governor who said he's prepared to lead the rebellion is willing to do," she said.

Rivers, however, does she he's pleased with Pawlenty's initial action. She says however that seniors need to lobby Congress to allow importation on the federal level.

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