Some pharmacists reluctant to go along with Governor Brad Henry's idea

Monday, January 31st 2005, 6:09 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Gov. Brad Henry says he is willing to go to the mat with the federal government to allow Oklahomans to lawfully buy cheaper drugs from other countries.

Henry's drug importation program is drawing criticism from some pharmacists and his office is bracing for opposition in the Legislature from large pharmaceutical companies, who have fought drug importation plans in other states.

If the Legislature passes Henry's plan, a legal fight between the state and the federal government could develop over a provision permitting Oklahoma pharmacies to buy certain medications from Canada and other countries.

``Even if we could buy FDA-approved prescriptions through Canada or Europe, we are still violating the law,'' said Phil Woodward, executive director of the Oklahoma Pharmacists Association.

``I'm not sure I'm ready for our pharmacies to challenge that at this point,'' he said.

Other association members are upset by a provision that would establish a Web site to make it easier for Oklahomans to buy drugs from Canada, where officials say government price controls keep drugs up to 60 percent cheaper than the same medications sold in the United States.

That proposal, Woodward said, could financially harm Oklahoma pharmacists, who are caught in the middle between rising drugs prices and angry consumers.

Henry, however, said pharmacists are not looking at the total package, stressing there is a provision allowing pharmacies to obtain cheaper drugs from abroad for sale in Oklahoma.

He said the state has sound legal arguments to challenge the Food and Drug Administration's assertion that the importation of drugs is illegal.

``The FDA hangs its hat on the Commerce Clause and we believe we have devised a plan to get us past that,'' Henry said.

He stressed a provision restricting pharmacies to selling only to their Oklahoma customers any drugs they buy from other countries.

The Commerce Clause to the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government exclusive authority to regulate commerce among the states.

``Our argument is going to be that the bill applies only to sales of imports to Oklahoma citizens and is therefore outside the Commerce Clause. I think we have a good argument,'' said state Finance Director Scott Meacham.

In developing the bill, Meacham said he and Secretary of Health Terry Cline got input from pharmacists, ``who provided us with the actual language'' proposing pharmacy sales of imported drugs.

``Obviously, the majority of Oklahomans are more comfortable going to Oklahoma pharmacies to get their prescriptions,'' he said.

Controversy over Canadian drug importation is nothing new in Oklahoma.

In 2003, the FDA went to federal court and shut down RX Depot, a Tulsa-based company that sold drugs from Canada at discount prices.

``It was immensely popular with the population, but they were selling without the benefit of a state statute that allowed them to do it and that is what got them in trouble,'' Meacham said.

Woodward said the program will be severely hampered if Canadian officials go forward with a threat to shut down drug exports.

But Meacham said other supplies are available, including those from Great Britain.

``As far as we are concerned, we can buy from any industrialized nation that is selling FDA-approved drugs,'' he said.

Henry's program also would set up an Oklahoma SmartCard program giving citizens easier access to existing drug discount programs and eliminating paperwork and bureaucratic hurdles.

The governor announced his program at a news conference where members of the American Association of Retired Persons spoke of hardships caused by double-digit increases in drug prices in recent years.

They nodded approvingly as the Democratic governor challenged lawmakers to back the plan to bring pressure on the federal government to provide a long-range solution to the problem.

``The worst thing we can do is to do nothing,'' he said.

Reaction of Republican legislative leaders to the program has thus far been reserved.

``Senate Republicans will study the details...and we are open to considering the merits of these very interesting ideas,'' said Senate Minority Leader Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City.