Gutknecht backs municipal drug importation plan
By Edward Felker
WASHINGTON -- The moves by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and Springfield, Mass., Mayor Michael Albano to buy cheaper imported prescription drugs for their public employee health plans won the backing of U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht and others seeking to legalize such imports nationally.
At a Wednesday news conference, Gutknecht, a 1st District Republican from Rochester, compared Albano's program to the outrage that prompted the Boston Tea Party.
"It really should send the same kind of message that the patriots at Boston Harbor sent, and that is, 'We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore,'" Gutknecht said, invoking the signature sentiment from the 1976 movie "Network."
"The time has come for this government to recognize that American seniors and American consumers should not be held hostage," Gutknecht said.
He pledged that he and others in Congress would back Albano.
Albano said his plan to save the city up to $9 million, or half of its 2003 estimated costs of $18 million for prescription drugs, might be put in jeopardy by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which enforces current law banning the importation of prescription drugs by non-manufacturers.
The FDA has not challenged Albano's plan. But on Tuesday, the FDA did go after the city's mail-order provider, warning CanaRx Services Inc. of Detroit to stop selling Canadian prescriptions to Americans.
Word of the action came as Albano was meeting with William K. Hubbard, the FDA's associate commissioner for policy and planning. Albano said the city considers the program legal because it is optional for each of the city's 10,000 health plan enrollees, which include retirees and dependents. Albano also said that Hubbard did not indicate the FDA would move against the city in particular.
Still, with the future of his program in doubt, and the city straining to meet its health care budget, Albano appealed to Gutknecht and his House allies to get their bill passed into law.
"If we get the legislation here in Washington that President Bush will sign, it's a municipal relief package for cities like Springfield -- $4 (million) to $9 million in savings -- and that money can be used for police, for fire, for libraries," Albano said.
Gutknecht and others praised Blagojevich, who announced on Sunday that the state would study importing drugs from Canada for its health plan, a move that could cut the state's $340 million annual tab for its 240,000 employees.
Gutknecht and other lawmakers were not ready to predict what will happen with their bill, the Pharmaceutical Market Access Act of 2003. They overcame pharmaceutical industry lobbying and GOP leadership opposition to win House passage of their bill in July, making it part of the chamber's Medicare prescription drug bill.
The Senate included language in its Medicare prescription drug bill allowing for the importation of drugs from Canada, but still subject to FDA approval, which advocates consider unlikely because of past opposition on safety grounds.
A House-Senate conference committee on the $400 billion Medicare bill looks increasingly unlikely to produce a compromise bill, an outcome that would force senators to pass the Gutknecht bill or one of their own if they wish to enact the language into law.