Pawlenty and Gutknecht take drug issue to the airwaves
By Ashley H. Grant
ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Congressman Gil Gutknecht teamed up today on two radio shows to push the idea of importing lower-priced prescription drugs from Canada or other countries.
Minnesota is one of three states looking into the possibility and the only state led by a Republican governor.
The Bush administration has so far opposed it, as have drug companies and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. All say safety concerns about imported drugs outweigh the benefit of lower costs. Imported drugs don't necessarily meet FDA specifications such as refrigeration and labeling.
But Gutknecht and Pawlenty largely dismissed those concerns today.
"The safety issue just doesn't play," said Gutknecht, who is sponsoring related legislation at the federal level.
Many times more people get sick from imported fruits and vegetables each year than from imported medication, he said.
Aside from safety concerns, opponents say allowing the United States to import drugs from Canada or other countries simply imports those nations' price controls. That, they say, doesn't solve the problem of high drug prices, it simply shifts even more of those costs to Americans who buy drugs at home.
Pawlenty said he didn't buy that argument, either, because importing any product from another country could have the same result.
Illinois was the first state to consider allowing state employees and retirees to import the drugs. Since then, Iowa and Minnesota have joined the movement.
Pawlenty on Wednesday asked the state's health and human services commissioner to look into importing drugs for state employees and those on public assistance -- up to 700,000 people. Recommendations are due within 30 days.
Because of government price controls and a favorable exchange rate, brand-name drugs in Canada often cost much less than they do in the United States.
For example, tamoxifen, a drug used to treat breast cancer, costs about $350 per month in the United States. The same drug costs about $60 per month in Germany and $50 per month in Canada, Gutknecht said.
Pawlenty said allowing the state to import drugs would help bring costs down in the short term. But, he added, the bigger reason to support such a move is to change the way drugs are priced here.
"One way to try to drive change is to try to bring some pressure on the pharmaceutical companies," he said.
An FDA spokesman said agency officials would meet with Pawlenty about the issue, but that the FDA wasn't contemplating any enforcement action against the state if it follows through with the plan.
Gutknecht, also a Republican, is sponsoring legislation that would remove the FDA's veto power over importation of FDA-approved drugs from FDA-approved facilities in Canada, the European Union and seven other nations.