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Drug Reimportation

02/24/05 12:00AM By John McClaughry
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(HOST) It's often said that you get what you pay for, and commentator John McClaughry has been thinking about how this bit of folk wisdom may apply to the debate about drug reimportation.


(MCCLAUGHRY) The 2005 legislature has moved quickly to pass a foreign drug importation bill. The argument for it seems reasonable. Vermonters want bargains. If Canadians and other foreigners can buy brand name American pharmaceuticals at bargain prices, why not us, from the comfort of our computers?

The answer to that is that Canadians enjoy lower prices because its provinces impose price controls on U. S. prescription drugs. Almost all of the enormous expense to the U. S. pharmaceutical industry of identifying a potentially useful drug, proving it to be safe and effective and marketing it at full speed before its patent expires and the generic companies start making it, falls on U. S. consumers.

There are several reasons why programs for reimportation are illegal. The most powerful one is that unlimited importation of foreign price controlled drugs into the U. S. will drive the world's leading pharmaceutical companies - ours - out of business. With everyone buying cheap foreign pills, there won't be anyone left to pay the huge government-mandated costs of FDA approval.

Another reason is that consumers can't be sure what they're getting when they buy a bottle of pills shipped in a foreign country. That's because prescription pills are not shipped around in little sealed bottles, but in big stock bottles containing thousands of pills. The process is an invitation to counterfeiters and even terrorists to substitute worthless or dangerous pills for the real thing.

Well, never mind all that. Let's look at the Illinois I-SaveRx online importation program, the one the legislature has so enthusiastically bought into. After loading on the costs of its bureaucratic procedures, quality safeguards and shipping, there's not much reason to believe that I-SaveRx brand name drugs would be any cheaper than what their equally effective generic versions sell for in a competitive U. S. community, big box or online pharmacy. And unless the I-SaveRx inspector is going to take up residence at the foreign pharmacy, there won't be any dependable guarantee that U. S. consumers are, in fact, getting what they are paying for.

None of this has given the legislature any pause. It's determined to bolt out of the starting gate with a big health care initiative, especially one opposed by the pharmaceutical companies. It might be smarter to encourage patients to choose much cheaper alternative treatments, persuade doctors to prescribe 90-day supplies and less expensive generics, teach consumers how to find the best prices and supply pharmaceutical discount cards.

But who would want to take political credit for that?

This is John McClaughry. Thanks for listening.

John McClaughry is president of the Ethan Allan Institute, a Vermont policy, research and education organization. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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