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Seniors group files lawsuit over Canada imports
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Marvin Miller says drug companies have cut off drug supplies to certain Canadian pharmacies to keep cross-border sales from eating into profit margins. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
A group of Minnesota seniors has filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court against nine pharmaceutical companies. The plaintiffs allege that those drug companies have conspired to prevent U.S. consumers from buying prescription drugs from Canada, creating high drug prices in the United States. This is the latest action taken in Minnesota to allow for the reimportation of Canadian medicine. They argue that Americans unfairly pay the highest drug prices in the world.

St. Paul, Minn. — The suit claims the drug companies are conspiring to limit drug sales to any Canadian pharmacy that sells prescription drugs to Americans. Chicago-based attorney Marvin Miller filed the suit with the help of the Minnesota Senior Federation. He's asking the court to make it a class action suit, so it would include all affected consumers, not just the three plaintiffs named in the filing. He says consumers would benefit if drug companies allowed cross-border sales because of increased competition between American and Canadian pharmacies. Miller says he's seeking attorneys' fees, unspecified damages and a stop to the companies' anti-import efforts.

"We believe that they did meet, that they did confer and that they implemented a policy or policies to threaten to cut off the supply of pharmaceuticals to Canadian wholesalers and pharmacies when those prescription drugs would come back into the United States," Miller says.

Miller says drug companies have cut off drug supplies to certain Canadian pharmacies to keep cross-border sales from eating into profit margins. Drugs in Canada are less expensive because of government price controls. Many Canadian Internet pharmacies say the boycott has caused their supplies to dwindle in recent months. Some say they could run out of certain popular drugs in the next six months.

Officials with Pfizer, the world's largest drug company, say they can't comment on the lawsuit because they haven't seen it. But Pfizer spokesman Bryant Haskins defends the company's limits on Canadian sales. He read a statement saying the company's tactics are legal and are meant to protect U.S. consumers from importing unsafe or counterfeit medicine.

"We're confident our distribution practices not only comply with U.S. law and FDA regulations, but they're also in the best interests of patient safety. The simple truth is that the importation of pharmaceutical products into the U.S. from Canada is not only illegal, but it's also dangerous.," Haskins said.

Pfizer claims cross-border sales increase the opportunities to introduce counterfeit or unapproved drugs into the supply chain. Officials with GlaxoSmithKline and the other drug companies were unavailable to comment for this report. Glaxo officials have said in the past that their actions in Canada are independent of any other drug company.

Glaxo is currently involved in a court battle with Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch over the issue of reimportation. Hatch is investigating to see if Glaxo conspired with other drug companies to cut off supplies to Canadian pharmacies. He's seeking company documents from Canada and Great Britain to see if Glaxo violated the state's anti-trust laws. Hatch says the recent lawsuit will continue to put pressure on drug companies and the federal government to allow for reimportation of prescription drugs.

"There's a lot of litigation involving the pharmaceutical industry right now and its unfortunate. We shouldn't have to have hundreds of lawsuits filed by consumers and citizens in America just trying to get a major industry like this is conduct itself in an appropriate fashion," Hatch says.

But some argue that it may be difficult for Hatch or anyone else to prove a conspiracy. Bert Foer, with the American Antitrust Institute in Washington D.C., says antitrust cases can be time-consuming and difficult to prove. He says finding significant evidence or documents necessary to make a case will be difficult.

"Presumably, acts which are known to be illegal are not done out in the open. They're very likely to say this was an independent action on our part and we were acting unilaterally not as part of any conspiracy," he says.

Gov. Pawlenty, who supports reimportation of Canadian drugs, issued a statement applauding the lawsuit.

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