State seeks to reimport drugs

CONCORD – Gov. Craig Benson announced plans Tuesday for the state government to purchase cheaper-priced drugs from Canada and allow any adult to use a state Web site to buy their own prescriptions.

“Pharmaceutical companies should charge one price for all the markets that they serve,’’ Benson told reporters.

New Hampshire would become the first state in the nation to buy medications from Canada for low-income residents and the disabled on the Medicaid health insurance program.

The number of medications would be limited, Benson said, because state government already gets 50 percent federal support for Medicaid plus millions a year in rebates from the drug companies.

The drugs selected also won’t be included in a state pharmacy benefit program under which the state already saves money in the purchase of certain pharmaceuticals.

“We’ll only do this where we can drive the best deal from buying these drugs ourselves,’’ Benson explained.

The savings for the taxpayer from buying drugs for state inmates would be even more significant, $1 million a year for the top 10 prescriptions issued to inmates, according to Benson aide Keith Herman.

A two-year, health insurance contract with Cigna HealthCare prevents the state from adding state workers to this Canadian drug purchase arrangement, Benson said.

Six other states – including Vermont – have been working on reimporting drugs from Canada. The city of Springfield, Mass., has moved to buy prescription drugs for its city employees.

Benson said language in the federal Medicare prescription drug law President Bush signed Monday permits the purchase of drugs for any individual from Canada with a waiver from Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.Benson was in Washington, D.C., Monday to witness the bill signing.

“The federal government is getting in step with other parts of the country on this,’’ he said.

For anyone to get a waiver, however, Thompson must certify that the purchase of these drugs poses no additional risk to public health.

In the past, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has opposed reimportation on the grounds it could not ensure these drugs would be safe.

State Democratic Party communications director Pamela Walsh said the Bush administration’s past views on the reimportation of drugs from Canada renders such a waiver meaningless.

“I just have trouble believing a Republican administration bought and sold by the pharmacy industry will agree now to allow a state government to buy drugs from Canada,’’ Walsh said.

“They have threatened lawsuits in other parts of the country that are looking at this.’’

Walsh said former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen pushed for reimportation of drugs from Canada during her unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate.

In the summer of 2001, Shaheen sought a federal waiver to allow the state to buy cheaper prescription drugs for low- and moderate-income senior citizens, but the Bush administration never acted on the request before she left office in January.

“It sounds like he is trying to build on what she already did, which is admirable,’’ Walsh said.

“I think the real problem is President Bush and the Republicans in Congress are more interested in preserving profits for the pharmaceutical companies rather than saving states money and letting consumers buy lower-cost prescription drugs.’’

Herman said the savings for Medicaid will come from drugs given for mental health illness that aren’t now covered by the existing pharmacy management program.

“Mental health drugs constitute one half of our Medicaid expenses on pharmaceuticals,’’ he said.

The Web portal will be up before the end of the month and permit anyone older than 18 to shop for drugs at Canadian pharmacies with the prescription from a licensed, New Hampshire doctor, Benson said.

The person would have to answer a medical questionnaire and then be allowed to purchase from a state-approved list of Canadian pharmacies.

A Canadian physician would also have to sign off on the purchase, which would be sent to the patient in the original, sealed container.

“I don’t see safety as an issue,’’ Benson said.

Pharmaceutical companies have moved to try to restrict the supply of drugs to Canadian pharmacies to reduce the number of drugs sold to American citizens.

“I happen to think the horse is already out of the barn,” Benson said. “If you can’t afford to buy them here, people are going to look for a place to buy them more cheaply and that’s Canada.”