Boston Hops On Canadian Drug Train

December 9, 2003 ( - The city of Boston is apparently jumping on the Canadian prescription drugs bandwagon.

According to a Boston Globe report, Mayor Thomas Menino plans to import prescription drugs from Canada for thousands of city workers and retirees – a move that city estimates say could slice about $1 million annually from the city’s $61-million prescription drug bill. Savings from the pilot program scheduled to start next summer are expected to be relatively small at first, because the program would be voluntary and cover a limited selection of medicines.

The Globe said Menino believes that importing medications is safe, although the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has repeatedly cautioned that it cannot ensure the safety of drugs brought in from Canada and importation remains illegal.

The agency, however, has not tried to stop Springfield, Massachusetts the first and only US city to turn to Canadian pharmacies to fill the drug orders of its employees. Springfield Mayor Michael Albano figures the five-month-old policy has already cut by $750,000 the $18 million the city spends on prescription drugs for its workers, retirees, and their dependents Memino met with Albano in October to discuss the drug importation issue. (See Boston Mayor Considers Pushing Canadian Drugs ).

Much like Albano, Menino intends his initiative to be as much political as financial, hoping to embarrass regulators and the drug industry into lowering prices. “The pharmaceutical manufacturers should be more sensitive to consumers’ needs,” the Globe quoted Menino as saying in remarks scheduled for delivery Tuesday afternoon. “If they are not, then the federal government needs to take responsibility for making sure that all Americans can afford to fill their prescriptions and take the medicines prescribed by their doctors.”

Two Ways to Pay

Boston’s approximately 15,000 workers and retirees have their health-care costs covered through one of two mechanisms: either they belong to an outside health plan, the choice of most current employees, or their bills are paid directly by the city. It’s the latter group, numbering about 7,000 and constituting mostly retirees that would initially have the option of getting drugs from Canadian pharmacies. About half of the $61 million total spent annually on prescriptions goes toward members of that plan.

Calculating how much could be saved by buying drugs through Canada is a difficult proposition, because not all drugs are available from the Canadian suppliers and the medicines that are stocked typically treat chronic conditions such as high blood pressure rather than acute illnesses, city officials said. Drugs that are available from Canada would probably cost the city 20% to 40% less than what it currently pays for those medications domestically, a city official estimated for the Globe report.

Cost is at the heart of the growing movement by both public entities and private citizens to circumvent federal law and import drugs from Canada. That practice remains illegal, although Congress has instructed the Department of Health and Human Services to review whether drugs can be safely imported from Canada. For now, the FDA continues to voice fears about the ability to ensure quality when medicines come from outside the country.

The pharmaceutical industry has assailed campaigns to bring Canadian drugs into the United States, citing safety concerns that it says have been validated by US health agencies under both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

By deciding to go with his plan, Menino joins mayors Albano of Springfield and Michael Bloomberg of New York City (See Springfield, Mass. Pushes Canadian Drug Order Program , Big Apple Mayor Wants to Harvest Drugs From Canada ) and the governors of Illinois, Minnesota, and other states (See Illinois Governor Says Proof Is in the Canadian Drug Plan Pudding , MN Governor Brings Canadian Drug Buying Plan to the Streets) on the front lines of a growing rebellion against the high cost of prescription drugs.