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Bill on Low Cost Drugs Vowed

Times Staff Writer

California should join other states in pushing the federal government to legalize the import of prescription drugs from Canada, the chairman of the Assembly Health Committee said Tuesday.

The call for wider availability of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada came as the committee held a hearing on the experience of other states seeking to buy drugs across the border.

“I think we should join these other states in looking for solutions,” said Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Los Feliz). “It’s time for us to make an assessment whether we can save money for ourselves and our constituents.”

He promised to introduce legislation that would require California to certify Canadian pharmacies for safety and set up a website to help Californians buy their prescription drugs cheaper across the border.

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Prescription drugs are cheaper in Canada, even those manufactured in the U.S., because the Canadian government controls prices, said Stephen Schondelmeyer, a professor of pharmaceutical economics at the University of Minnesota. He told lawmakers that U.S. prescription drug prices have increased at a rate two to three times that of inflation in recent years.

The top 50 drugs used by elderly Americans cost an average of $1,500 a year, said Schondelmeyer, but would cost $615 in Canada, where the average name-brand prescription drug is 41% cheaper.

That price inflation undermines California’s already fragile budget. Prescription drugs for the Medi-Cal program cost $2.9 billion last year and are projected to hit $3.8 billion this year, said Frommer, while the Department of Corrections estimates that its drug costs -- now at $125 million annually -- have been rising at a rate of 20% a year.

Besides an estimated 1 million Americans who have purchased drugs from Canada, a growing list of states and cities have begun pressuring the federal government to sanction drug imports.

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Illinois, for example, sponsors a website that compares the price of prescription drugs in Canada and the U.S.

Springfield, Mass. began buying prescription drugs from Canada for hundreds of its employees in July.

Federal law allows only drug manufacturers to import prescription drugs from other countries. No one has been prosecuted for violating the import ban, although the Food and Drug Administration has sent a warning letter to the Canadian company supplying Springfield employees.

William Hubbard, FDA associate commissioner for policy and planning, said in an interview that the drug safety standards in the U.S. and Canada “probably aren’t that different.”

But drug importation over the Internet and mail leaves Americans vulnerable to dangerous or ineffective drugs manufactured elsewhere in the world and sold by a company with a Canadian address, he said.

Merrill R. Jacobs, the Sacramento lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said drug makers were not invited to Frommer’s hearing, and he could not comment on proposed legislation until he sees the details.

“It’s a very complex issue,” he said. “The Congress has passed legislation allowing importing of medicine, if it can be certified as safe by the FDA, and the secretaries of Health and Human Services under both Clinton and Bush have not done so.”


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