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Board Rejects Drug Import Bid

Times Staff Writer

Orange County supervisors Tuesday rejected a proposal to let government workers and retirees buy prescription drugs from Canada, a plan that could have saved millions of dollars but would have violated federal law.

The idea drew support from its originator, Supervisor Chuck Smith, and Supervisor Chris Norby, who said the county should be ready to launch such a program if rules against importation are relaxed.

But the board majority had a two-word response to Smith’s plan: It’s illegal.

“I can’t support developing a program before it’s legal,” board Chairman Tom Wilson said.

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The Food and Drug Administration bans the importation of drugs but does not routinely enforce the prohibition. The FDA recently announced it wouldn’t interfere with individuals buying small amounts of drugs from Canadian pharmacies for their own use.

In addition, the government has not moved against seven states and a dozen cities that have begun or announced plans to import drugs from Canada for their workers.

Smith, who attended his final board meeting Tuesday before retirement, chided his colleagues for being too timid on a critical issue.

“There is a tremendous potential for savings here,” he said. “Prescription drugs are one of the fastest-rising healthcare costs in the country.”

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The issue became personal to Smith after he and his brothers helped his 95-year-old mother, who died recently, cover her monthly $2,400 prescription costs.

Speaking on Smith’s behalf Tuesday were Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., and former Assemblyman Lou Correa, who takes over Smith’s job as supervisor in January.

Correa said he would continue to push the issue locally and in Sacramento on the county’s behalf. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed several bills in October that would have allowed the state to import drugs from Canada, pledging to devise his own plan to exact voluntary price reductions for Californians’ prescriptions.

“The potential cost savings are too great to drop this,” Correa said.

County officials estimated the county could save about $850,000 a year, and employees the same amount, by buying drugs from Canada. The savings were based on the purchase of name-brand drugs by employees enrolled in medical programs that allow them to choose their own doctor.

Beyond the cost savings, adopting a Canadian drug program would send a message to the federal government that its restrictions on drug importation should be reevaluated, Smith and Norby said.

Of the 10 top drug manufacturers in the world, five are multinational corporations with headquarters outside the United States.

Under Smith’s proposal, employees refilling existing prescriptions through Canadian pharmacies wouldn’t have been charged the usual 20% co-payment. Name-brand prescriptions could be filled for 40% less in Canada than the U.S., according to a report by the county Health Care Agency.

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Employees and retirees would have been restricted to purchasing medicines previously filled in the U.S. and taken without adverse effects, and only from a county-approved list of drugs, under the Health Care Agency’s proposed guidelines.


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