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Agency Opposes Online Drug Bill

The state pharmacy board says the proposal to list Canadian sources for medicines would violate federal law.

August 04, 2004|Gabrielle Banks | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — State regulators are opposing one of the central ideas of Democratic legislators this year: to lower drug costs by identifying Canadian pharmacies where consumers can order them.

A Senate bill up for an Assembly committee vote today would require the state Board of Pharmacy to post names and Internet links to Canadian pharmacies on its website, as four other states do.

Days before the vote, the pharmacy board said the legislation would force it to endorse action that violates federal law against drug importation.

"We want patients to have access to safe medication," said Patricia Harris, the board's executive officer. But she said the board was uncertain about embracing something not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

She said the board did not want to oppose the bill, "but this is not sanctioned by the FDA."

Although the pharmacy board does not report directly to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, its position echoes some of the safety concerns expressed by the governor and the pharmaceutical industry.

The governor has said he wants to find ways to lower drug prices but is wary about Californians importing drugs from abroad if they would be violating federal laws. He has not taken a position on the pending legislation.

Pharmaceutical and biotech companies say they could lose profits that would otherwise go into research on new drugs if Californians buy pharmaceuticals from countries where they cost less.

The industries have spent more than $1 million lobbying against more than a dozen bills in the Legislature that would affect the way Californians get their prescriptions filled.

The industry's trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, has said that posting information about Canadian pharmacies on a state website would be illegal because the FDA does not permit bulk drug importation. The drug industry insists its prime concern is patient safety.

Peter Kellison, a lobbyist for the California Pharmacists Assn., said the group was opposed to the bill because there are not assurances that imported products "meet the same standards of safety and efficacy as those approved by the FDA."

The sponsors of SB 1149 hope an informational website would help Californians find places to purchase drugs more cheaply online.

The bill's author, Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), said it included more safeguards than required by other states with similar websites. Under the bill, only pharmacies licensed by their Canadian province could be listed on California's website, and consumers would be required to have a prescription from a doctor licensed to practice in the United States.

Many Californians are already purchasing drugs from abroad, Ortiz said, adding, "Clearly, the pharmaceutical industry stands to lose outrageous and unfair profits in California."

The Legislature's lawyers examined the bill last month and concluded it would "not violate the importation or other provisions" of federal laws as long as the state only provided the names and contact information of Canadian pharmacies.

Democratic lawmakers have made the topic one of their top priorities for August, the last month of this year's session. Legislators are also considering a measure that would authorize the state to buy Canadian drugs in bulk for its healthcare programs for the poor.

Senate Democrats last week sent a fact-finding delegation of aides, activists for the elderly and others to Winnipeg and Vancouver to assess the quality of services at several mail-order pharmacies.

Narinder Singh, who directs 14 pharmacies for healthcare centers and prisons in Santa Clara County, said the pharmacies "we saw met or exceeded the standards for a mail-order pharmacy."

Mark Beach, a spokesman for AARP in California who also went on the trip, said, "Most Americans probably believe the Canadians have high standards. The pharmaceuticals industry is making a strong effort to cast aspersions on the safety of drugs from Canada."

Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and New Hampshire provide links to Canadian pharmacies on their state websites.

Although the FDA prohibits importation of medication from other countries, an estimated 1 million Americans do so anyway, according to Ortiz's office.

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