Drug plan tops health care agenda

Saturday, February 5th 2005, 4:12 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Ruth Lane remembers having a ``very bad day'' nine years ago that left her dependent on a drug she can't afford on her Social Security income.

It's a story shared by many of her fellow members of the American Association of Retired Persons, who are lining up behind Gov. Brad Henry's drug importation program, the cornerstone of his 2005 health care agenda.

``I caught double pneumonia and had a stroke and a heart attack all in one day,'' recalled Lane, a 92-year-old Lindsay resident. ``I was in the hospital for seven weeks. They ran tubes down my nose and throat for so long it damaged my membranes. They said I would never come home.''

Now she must take an antihistamine she can only get by prescription, which costs her $76 for 30 pills because the drug is not covered by Medicare.

For long periods of time, she said she did not buy the drug but got by with samples from her doctor.

``I'm on a very limited income and I have to go without things _ like maybe a meal out _ so I can afford it,'' she said.

She said she knows many older Oklahomans who are in worse shape than she is.

``Some of them go without food and some of them have to cut back on heat to get the medication they need. It's sad.''

Henry's importation program would allow pharmacies to buy cheaper drugs from Canada or other countries, as long as they are approved by the Federal Drug Administration.

Wanda Moebius, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Research of America, said the industry is ``adamantly opposed to importation because of safety reasons.''

Moebius said allowing drug stores to sell imported drugs would be a first in the country. ``That would raise a pretty significant liability concern,'' she said.

Another big issue facing state officials this year will be implementation of a program Henry got through the Legislature a year ago to help thousands of uninsured Oklahomans get health care coverage.

Funded through tobacco taxes approved by the people last November, the program includes subsidies for small businesses so they can provide health insurance for their employees.

Henry says he's pushing for a way to get cheaper drugs into the state because ``for many Oklahomans, it's a life and death issue.''

His program includes setting up a state Web site to make it easier for individuals to buy certain drugs from abroad, establishing large pools to save money on bulk purchases of medications and a ``SmartCard'' provision to help individuals to find financial help for drug purchases.

The fact that drugs can be sold by drug companies to Canada, then bought back and sold in America at discounts of 50 percent or more is perplexing to AARP members.

``Why don't they sell it to us at the same price? It doesn't make sense,'' says Ray Goucher of Edmond, a 75-year-old Lupus patient who has had to take a variety of drugs for several years.

Henry said it's a question that many in public office also have.

Moebius said the obvious reason is price controls, which she said penalizes U.S. citizens.

She said Canadians, ``are paying an artificially low price for drugs and the American patient winds up paying a greater portion of the research and development costs.''

Henry said he is willing to go to court to defend his program.

Phil Woodward, executive director of the Oklahoma Pharmacists Association, said he is leery of recommending that Oklahoma pharmacies take up the legal challenge.

Woodward also points to reports that Canada is considering cutting off drug exports.

Henry said his program does not violate the Commerce Clause to the U.S. Constitution because pharmacy sales would be restricted to customers in Oklahoma.

He said the FDA has relied on the Commerce Clause argument in challenging drug importation plans in other states.

Scott Meacham, Henry's finance secretary, suggests that supplies of cheaper, FDA-approved Drugs will be available in other countries, such as Great Britain, even if Canadian exports are restricted.

Meacham recalls the popularity of RX Depot, a Tulsa-based company that sold drugs from Canada at discount prices but was shut down after the FDA went to federal court.

That operation could have benefited greatly from a state law, Meacham said.

Republican leaders have been reserved so far in their comments about Henry's program.

A week before the session, House Speaker Todd Hiett announced a $1 million program to expand a pilot project in Norman that obtains drug discounts for low-income Oklahomans. Hiett also is promoting tort reform as a way to cut down on health care costs.

Henry said he welcomed the GOP plan, but the need for cheaper medications is so great a broader approach is required.

Moebius said 6.2 million people, including over 112,000 in Oklahoma, have received discounted drugs under a program sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry. She urged more Oklahomans to take advantage of the ``Helping Patients'' program.