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Tuesday, October 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Two states launch program to buy drugs outside U.S.

By Maura Kelly Lannan
The Associated Press

Gov. Rod Blagojevich is behind drug program.
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CHICAGO — Illinois and Wisconsin yesterday launched the nation's first state-sponsored program to help residents buy cheaper prescription drugs from both Europe and Canada — despite federal laws banning the practice.

The program, called I-SaveRx, works through a Canada-based clearinghouse and claims it can save residents 25 percent to 50 percent off U.S. retail prices on about 100 prescription medications.

"Now, the nearly 13 million people who live in Illinois and the more than 5 million people who live in Wisconsin will have the opportunity to save hundreds — and in some cases even thousands — of dollars each year on the high cost of their medicine," Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said in announcing the start of the program.

"Our seniors will no longer have to spend more money than they have just to afford the medicine they need," he said.

By including pharmacies in Ireland and the United Kingdom, I-SaveRx goes beyond programs in other states that direct residents on how to buy prescription drugs from Canada, where drugs are often cheaper because of government price controls.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) opposes such reimportation of prescription drugs, saying it cannot guarantee the safety of medications sold through foreign pharmacies.

"The governor, instead of following established legal avenues to change the law, is instead creating a program that would violate the law by causing the importation of drugs that are themselves illegal," said William Hubbard, FDA associate commissioner.

The FDA has not stopped Minnesota and other states from setting up Internet sites to help consumers buy drugs through Canadian pharmacies. The FDA has sent a warning letter to the pharmaceutical-benefits manager that administers the clearinghouse used by I-SaveRx, Hubbard said. But he said the FDA will not do anything yet to shut down I-SaveRx.

Blagojevich has been a leading figure in the push to buy prescription drugs from Canada. Illinois last year requested federal approval to set up a pilot program for the state to import drugs from that country for state employees and retirees, but the request was rejected.
Rather than drop the idea, the Blagojevich administration sent teams to Europe to study the safety and feasibility of importing prescription drugs from Ireland and the United Kingdom, as well as from Canada. Wisconsin recently joined the effort.

Blagojevich called the new program "a prairie fire" that was burning in the Midwest and would spread as more people realized they could save money on their prescription drugs. Congress has debated legalizing prescription-drug imports but has yet to act.

Illinois, which created the I-SaveRx program, will not import the drugs itself. Instead, it has contracted with a Canadian company to connect residents with 45 foreign pharmacies and wholesalers that have been approved by Illinois health inspectors and verified by Wisconsin.

The clearinghouse will provide information about 100 of the most common brand-name drugs used to treat chronic or long-term conditions.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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