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Gov. Appeals for More Drug Imports

Times Staff Writers

After repeatedly rejecting plans by Democratic legislators to encourage people to import prescription drugs from abroad, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday endorsed the notion by urging the federal government to lift the ban on foreign drug purchases.

The governor’s push to allow voters to take advantage of discounts in drug prices ranging from 35% to 55% in other countries comes as Schwarzenegger seeks to position himself closer to the political center in preparation for a reelection run this year. The governor vetoed bills in the Legislature in 2004, and again last year, that would have enabled California residents to purchase drugs from abroad. Seven other states have already passed such laws.

In a letter that Schwarzenegger will send to congressional leaders today, he says that the bills he vetoed violated federal law. But he says that despite his appeals to the Bush administration to address the issue, “drug prices continue to escalate and there has been no evidence that the federal government has been able to bring more equity to the global pharmaceutical marketplace.”

“The Congress must act to allow Americans to import safe prescription drugs,” the letter says.

Critics dismissed the governor’s letter, which administration officials say he will highlight in his State of the State address Thursday, as a transparent political maneuver.

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“It’s a ploy,” said Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Glendale), whose bill, AB 73, would have required the state to set up a website directing Californians to pharmacies in Canada, Ireland and Britain to purchase drugs. Schwarzenegger vetoed the measure last year. “This is a publicity stunt. It’s another effort from the governor to make voters think he is on their side, when in fact, he is not doing anything that will help them.”

Frommer said several states are already helping their residents purchase drugs from abroad. The governor, he said, is asking Congress to take action while continuing to block efforts to help Californians purchase drugs abroad.

Some healthcare advocates had similar reactions.

Anthony Wright, executive director of Sacramento-based Health Access, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income Californians, said that though the letter to Congress is welcome, the governor needs to work harder to reform the state’s system.

“He can take meaningful action here in California, if he chooses to part ways with the drug companies,” Wright said.

He also questioned how much sway Schwarzenegger has with Congress. When the governor wrote a public letter to members of Congress urging them to reject hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to Medicaid, every California Republican voted for the cuts.

The State of the State address will mark the one-year anniversary of the governor’s special election campaign -- which ended in October when voters rejected all four of the initiatives he backed, including one supported by drug companies.

“Last year he was drawing lines in the sand; this year he is looking for common ground,” said Republican political consultant Dan Schnur. “He needs to win back the support of Californians who voted for him in the recall election in 2003 but voted against his initiatives in the special election.”

Last week, administration officials said the governor would seek to stop a planned tuition hike at state universities and raise the minimum wage, moves likely to appeal to Democratic voters.

Since he was elected, Schwarzenegger has resisted efforts by Democratic legislators to encourage the importation of prescription drugs within California, saying that the federal government does not allow it. Other states that have passed such legislation have yet to be challenged by the federal government.

In 2004, he vetoed four bills, including ones that would have set up websites to guide residents to Canadian pharmacies and allowed the state to consider direct purchases for Medi-Cal patients. He vetoed another similar bill last year, warning that encouraging Canadian imports could “expose the state to potential tort liability, and potentially jeopardize patient safety.”

Last year, Schwarzenegger offered his own drug cost-reduction plan, which he negotiated with the pharmaceutical industry. Drug makers said they would voluntarily lower prices for poor and middle-class Californians. Democrats rejected that plan, saying it would not lead to substantial discounts.

Two competing initiatives -- one by the drug industry and one by consumer groups -- were rejected by voters in the November special election. The governor had endorsed the drug industry’s proposal.

More than 2 million Americans are estimated to already be buying drugs from Canada. The Bush administration has resisted efforts in other states, including Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, to establish trial importation programs, saying that the government cannot guarantee the safety of those medicines.

Nonetheless, leaders in other parts of the country have been defying Washington. When Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich launched a website directing people to Canadian pharmacies, he castigated the FDA, saying, “They’ve acted more like the guardian of the drug companies and their anti-free-market price structure instead of protecting the health and safety of American consumers.”


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