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State employees can order drugs from Canada for free
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Gov. Pawlenty announced Thursday that state employees will now be able to buy prescription drugs for free, if they order them from a Canadian Web site. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he's taking the next step on the issue of drug reimportation. A plan Pawlenty announced Thursday would allow Minnesota's 120,000 state employees to get certain drugs at no cost to them -- if they buy from a Canadian Internet pharmacy. He says the employees and the state will save a significant amount of money on drug costs. Minnesota is the first state in the nation to take such action. But critics say the action is illegal and will have a short shelf life.

St. Paul, Minn. — Under Pawlenty's plan, employees would essentially get eligible prescriptions for free. Pawlenty intends to waive all employee co-payments, as well as shipping and handling costs, for purchases through the Canadian Web site,

Under the plan, state employees will save at least $180 a year for each drug. Pawlenty says the initiative will also save the state about $1.5 million over the next year.

"What will happen at first is there will be a modest amount of people who will use it and try it. As word leaks out that it was a good experience or a helpful experience, it will spread," Pawlenty says. "And we hope that a year or two from now that it mushroomed or grew significantly."

State employees will have access to 45 drugs at first. Most will be maintenance drugs, which are used to treat conditions such as high cholesterol, arthritis and depression. Officials say eight of the top 10 drugs used by state employees are on the list. Pawlenty says the state should see savings, because Canadian price controls make drugs less expensive.

Peter Benner with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 6, says he'll encourage his members to take advantage of the plan. But Benner is urging state employees to hurry, since several drug companies have cut off supplies to Canadian Internet pharmacies that sell to U.S. consumers.

FDA is concerned that the governor is flouting federal law.
- Tom McGinnis, director of pharmacy affairs, FDA

"There will be this very narrow window where those that go first for some very limited time will be able to pass these savings on," says Benner. "But without congressional action, or action by (Health and Human Services Secretary) Tommy Thompson, the drug companies will bat last right now. And I think we're just waiting to see what's going to happen when they come up to the plate."

This is the second phase of Pawlenty's reimportation plan. Earlier in the year, he announced a Web site to help Minnesotans buy prescriptions at a discount from two Canadian pharmacies. He says reimportation is a way to increase pressure on drug companies and the federal government, to do something about the high cost of drugs.

Pawlenty's actions have upset local pharmacists.

Julie Johnson with the Minnesota Pharmacists Association says many pharmacists, especially in rural areas, are struggling to stay in business. She says the latest move could put some out of business.

"There are areas in the state where there's a higher concentration of state employees. Certainly those pharmacies will have a potentially bigger economic impact," says Johnson.

Pawlenty says he'd like to help local pharmacists by allowing them to import and sell foreign medicine. But Johnson says that move would be illegal. In fact, some federal officials say Pawlenty's latest action is also crossing the line.

"FDA is concerned that the governor is flouting federal law," says Tom McGinnis, director of pharmacy affairs with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

McGinnis says Gov. Pawlenty and others are jeopardizing the safety of Minnesota citizens by allowing for reimportation. McGinnis says the FDA has a task force set up to study the issue of reimportation. But he doesn't believe that gives Pawlenty the right to allow for the state to import drugs from any foreign pharmacy.

"These pharmacies are outside the regulatory system that the Congress has set up to protect the safety of patients in the United States," says McGinnis. "We've been warning local and state officials who are thinking about doing this type of thing, or have done this type of thing, about those safety concerns." McGinnis says most consumers would do better if they choose generic alternatives to certain brand name drugs. He also says Medicare recipients will see a significant savings if they use one of the Medicare drug discount cards available on June 1.

Susan Bartlett Foote, with the University of Minnesota's Division of Health Services Research and Policy, says many agree that reimportation should be an option. She says it's likely that other governors will consider taking similar action in the near future.

"It's clear that the politics are on the governor's side. This is something that the public is very interested in, and it seems that the political pressure both in Washington and in the states is to go forward with this type of activity," says Bartlett Foote. Gov. Pawlenty says the Web site is up and running. He says only state employees enrolled in the current state insurance program will have access to the site.

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