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Pawlenty vs. the FDA
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Gov. Pawlenty led a discussion in Washington D.C. Tuesday about prescription drug costs at the annual meeting of the National Governors Association. (Photo courtesy of C-SPAN)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty says federal concerns won't prompt him to shut down a state Web site that provides consumer information on Canadian pharmacies. The Food and Drug Administration sent Pawlenty a letter Monday calling the Web site "unsafe, unsound and ill-considered." Attorney General Mike Hatch says the FDA doesn't have any grounds for legal action against the Web site.

St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota's Web site contains information on two Canadian pharmacies, one in Vancouver and one in Calgary. It's part of Gov. Pawlenty's strategy for streamlining access to cheaper prescription drugs available across the border, where government price controls keep costs down.

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Image It's free speech

The Web site includes an order form that must be printed out and mailed or faxed to the pharmacies. There's no direct link to the two pharmacies, and prescriptions can't be ordered through the Web site. At a prescription drug summit in Washington, D.C., Gov. Pawlenty said the site addresses safety concerns.

"It reflects the work that we have done by going to visit and to evaluate various Canadian pharmacies, to make sure that they are safe and reputable and established and credible," Pawlenty said.

The FDA letter says Minnesota officials found dozens of safety problems at the Canadian pharmacies they visited. The letter called Pawlenty's active promotion of the Web site "unwise, and most urgently, unsafe," It concludes by saying that the state can do better than simply giving Minnesotans a foreign fax number and wishing them luck.

An FDA associate commissioner who wrote the letter, Bill Hubbard, said the federal agency is not threatening legal action - yet.

We think this letter is very strongly worded and makes the point that what he (Pawlenty) is doing is unsafe. ... Obviously, it would be a good thing if he stopped.
- Bill Hubbard, FDA associate commissioner

But, he said, "We think this letter is very strongly worded and makes the point that what he (Pawlenty) is doing is unsafe. ... Obviously, it would be a good thing if he stopped."

Hubbard said that should the state persist in directing Minnesotans to foreign pharmacies, "this is a potential violation of the law." While FDA officials want to work with the state, he said, they cannot tolerate wholesale defiance of the law.

Pawlenty says the safety violations cited by the FDA were found at pharmacies rejected for the state Web site. The letter doesn't threaten legal action. Attorney General Mike Hatch, who spoke Tuesday at an AARP lunchoen, says that's because the Web site is a form of free speech.

"Even a state government is allowed to express itself and to inform the public, and that's what the Web site does," Hatch says. "On a list of 100 cases, that would be the worst case for the FDA to take. It doesn't even get to the issue of selling pharmaceutical prescriptions, because it's simply a free speech advisory."

Minnesota was the first state to create a Web site guiding citizens through the process of buying prescription drugs from Canada. Wisconsin is about to launch a similar site. The state of Illinois wants to go even further, and has asked the Bush administration for permission to start a pilot drug importation program. Federal officials have not responded to Illinois' request.

Senior organizations support Minnesota's efforts. AARP of Minnesota backs the Web site, and is also asking the state to use its purchasing power to lower drug prices for all low-income Minnesotans. AARP State President Skip Humphrey says the state Web site is a good first step toward helping people buy cheaper prescription drugs.

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Image Denny Deanovic

"We've got to be able to negotiate. It means that consumers have to have good information, and they need to be able to have access to lower-cost drugs," says Humphrey. "And if that means we have to go to Canada to get it, that's where we're going to go."

More than 100 AARP members came to the Capitol to tell lawmakers to do something about the high cost of prescription drugs. None has used the Minnesota Web site to purchase drugs from Canada, but Denny Deanovic of Faribault says he's told a couple of friends to check it out.

"It's no different than getting on a Dayton bus and going up there and buying your drugs. I think the people in Minnesota are beginning to realize and they're beginning to see that there is a big concern," says Deanovic. "Whether it's a bus going across the border, whether it's a computer going across the border, whatever, the fact of the matter is that drugs are high and they need to be reduced."

State officials say Minnesota's Web site has received about 35,000 hits since it was launched a month ago. They say in the next phase of Minnesota's efforts, the state will provide incentives for state employees to buy their prescription drugs through the Web site.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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