FDA Calls Out Springfield Canada Drug Buying Plan

August 13, 2003 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Believing health plan participant lives may be at risk, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Mark McClellan, is urging the city of Springfield, Massachusetts to reconsider its plan to purchase low-cost prescription drugs from Canada.

>As an alternative, McClellan said the FDA would welcome discussions with Springfield Mayor Michael Albano over the city’s program, one that would not lead the American city to look across international borders.   “We should not be sacrificing safety or quality for the sake of saving the government a few bucks,” McClellan said in a Boston Globe report. “I don’t agree that people should have to trade off safety with price in order for a local government to save some money.”

>Even though McClellan called the program illegal and even with the concerns he gave over participant safety, the commissioner stopped short of saying the FDA would take any enforcement action.   Instead, the agency has issued warning letters and sought to shut down US “store fronts” that specialize in securing Canadian drugs for Americans, but Springfield’s move apparently represents the first time the agency has been confronted with the prospect of a municipal government violating federal law.

The Springfield Plan

But Springfield’s mayor said the city has yet to receive any words of warning or questions from the FDA about its purchasing plan.   Under the plan, Springfield entices city employees and retirees to take advantage of the voluntary system by waiving copayments on prescription drugs – currently ranging from $6 to $20 per prescription – for participants that place their orders though CanaRx Services Inc., an Ontario company that mails three-month supplies of prescribed drugs from Canadian pharmacies. Overall, this appears to be a small price to pay for the city that cites savings on drugs ranging from 20% to 80% and ultimately could put between $4 million and $9 million in savings back into city coffers (See  Springfield, Mass. Pushes Canadian Drug Order Program ).

City officials contend that the plan does not require federal approval because it is voluntary and because individuals, not the city, place the order for drugs (current US law forbids anyone other than manufacturers from importing drugs).  However, while the program currently is voluntary, the city hopes to implement it for all employees and retirees by the end of the year once it receives required approval from city unions. All but two school department unions have endorsed the plan.

>Springfield, the Bay State’s third largest city with a population of some 152,000, is being eyed by city officials in Worcester, Lowell, Revere, and Pittsfield, and the drug plan has the potential to spread to other places if it is successful, Albano said. The mayor gave his own perspective on the program in an op-ed piece in Sunday’s Washington Post. The mayor said he has been buying insulin for his son, a diabetic, from Canada since March and has no evidence that any drugs from Canada have been tampered with.

“If there’s something wrong with this picture, demonstrate it to me,” Albano told the Globe. “No one has been able to do it other than these vague scare tactics that I don’t think anyone is buying.”