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Sacramento Bee

Riding rails for drug imports;

Group wants state OK to buy cheaper Canadian medications.

by Lisa Rapaport -- Bee Staff Writer
Aug 24, 2004

On Monday, Placerville retirees Bill and Sonja Clarke boarded a midnight train to Canada.

They're riding the rails to protest a federal ban on prescription drug imports and to pressure Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to reconsider his opposition to legislation that would help patients buy medications from Canada.

Their 36-hour journey up the Pacific coast to a Vancouver pharmacy in the waning days of the legislative session is part of a quest by consumer groups and senior advocates to win passage for several Canadian drug bills despite a veto threat from the Schwarzenegger administration.

In Canada, price controls make prescriptions up to 80 percent cheaper than retail pharmacy prices in the United States.

"Cheap drugs should not be just for Canadians," said Douglas Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Consumer and Taxpayer Rights, which organized the "Rx Express" train to Canada.

The Clarkes, bound for Canada with 20 other patients, said the crushing price of insurance premiums has made Canada their only affordable option. When they retired three years ago, their premiums for a health plan with drug benefits cost $218 a month. Now it costs $718.

"We worked our whole life and paid into the retirement system in California," Sonja Clarke said. "Now the California Legislature and the California governor need to take care of us."

Though it is illegal for states and cities to import Canadian drugs, a nationwide backlash against the law has gained momentum as cash-strapped governments try to lower health costs and assist consumers.

California is one of at least 25 states weighing legislation that would allow Canadian drug imports, and Los Angeles and San Francisco are among scores of cities doing the same.

Governors in five other states have approved Web sites guiding patients to reliable sources of Canadian drugs.

But Kim Belsh�, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, indicated last week in a letter to lawmakers that the Schwarzenegger administration would veto four measures aimed at helping consumers and state health programs buy Canadian drugs.

Belsh� proposed amendments to the Canadian drug measures to create a drug discount program that does not involve Canadian drugs. It would benefit Californians with incomes below 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $56,550 for a family of four.

The program would let uninsured patients buy drugs at discounts negotiated by the state's Medi-Cal program, a move that would require approval from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"I am concerned that rising drug prices push medicines beyond the reach of hard-working, low-income residents who lack health insurance and do not qualify for public programs," Schwarzenegger said in a letter to Tommy G. Thompson, the U.S. secretary for health and human services, seeking an initial reaction to his proposed program.

Democratic lawmakers behind the Canadian drug importation bills said it was unlikely they would immediately amend their measures to the Republican governor's satisfaction.

"The proposal needs considerably more work before we can be confident that it will deliver cost relief anywhere near the level of the Canadian drug importation bills currently before the Legislature," said state Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, author of one of the drug bills.

Instead, Ortiz called for hearings in September to consider Schwarzenegger's plan.

Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Los Angeles, author of another drug bill, said that, in the absence of congressional action to legalize drug imports, California lawmakers need to take a stand to make medicine more affordable. "Other governors, both Republicans and Democrats, have already taken a stand," Frommer said. "Our governor needs to do the same."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said Canadian drug imports are illegal for good reason -patient safety.

Imported drugs might not be made, stored or shipped according to FDA standards, federal officials say. They could be outdated, contaminated or contain wrong amounts of key ingredients.

More and more, state and city officials argue they should have every right to import expensive brand-name drugs from Canada that were made in the United States according to FDA rules. Many of those medications were developed at American public universities with U.S. government grants.

The bills under consideration:

* AB 1957 (Frommer) would create a state Web site comparing drug prices in the U.S. and Canada and directing patients to Canadian drugstores approved by the California Board of Pharmacy.

* SB 1149 (Ortiz) would have the pharmacy board design a Web site to steer patients to credible Canadian drugstores and to warn consumers away from dangerous drug sources.

* SB 1144 (Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco) would permit the state Department of General Services to buy Canadian drugs for state agencies, including health programs for prisoners and university students.

* SB 1222 (Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland) would let poor patients covered by Medi-Cal use approved Canadian pharmacies.
The Bee's Lisa Rapaport can be reached at (916) 321-1005 or [email protected]