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Supervisor Will Seek County Trial of Foreign Pharmacies

Chuck Smith goes to Texas to investigate cheaper prescriptions and likes what he sees.

September 25, 2004|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

TEMPLE, Tex. — An Orange County supervisor's pursuit of cheaper prescription drugs for the county's workforce brought him to this Texas town an hour north of Austin on Friday, where he toured a small prescription claim-processing company that for two years has helped municipalities buy drugs from Canada.

Supervisor Chuck Smith said he left the meeting so impressed that he plans to ask his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to approve a pilot program that would allow employees to save money on prescriptions by buying from pharmacies in Canada and abroad -- perhaps through this little family-owned company in Texas, which goes by the expansive name of SPC Global Technologies.

It's a program that could save the county millions of dollars from its portion of drug expenses and reduce out-of-pocket expenses for employees, Smith said.

Officials with SPC Global Technologies told Smith that Orange County could dramatically cut costs by allowing employees to hunt for brand-name drugs on the international market, where prescriptions often sell for a fraction of their cost in the United States. The firm has processed more than 52,000 Canadian prescription orders for customers in the United States and lists a dozen municipalities among its clients, including Montgomery, Ala.

SPC Global Technologies serves as an intermediary for foreign pharmacies and U.S. consumers and considers one of its most important roles tracking all medicines that patients take to prevent the possibility of dangerous interactions, said Tom Curb, the company's co-founder.

Curb's company lets pharmacists know whether consumers are covered by insurance and processes payments.

It rejects orders for foreign pharmacies if the drugs are cheaper in the United States, Curb said.

If Orange County acts on Smith's proposal, it could become the first California county to allow employees to pursue cheaper drugs from foreign pharmacies.

It could also be defying the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has cautioned other municipal governments that importing drugs from foreign countries is dangerous and illegal, but has not prosecuted those agencies.

Several U.S. cities allow employees to buy prescriptions in Canada and other countries.

"There are millions of people that are using Canadian pharmacies, and there's no indication of any problems," Smith said. "How can they say they're not safe when they allow 1 million people to buy their drugs from Canada?"

Last month, SPC Global broadened its international reach by agreeing to help its more than 400,000 customers to look beyond Canada to pharmacies in Chile, Israel, Australia and England for potential savings. Smith said he expected his proposed pilot program to include pharmacies in those countries as well.

Earlier this year, the FDA sent SPC Global two warning letters that accused the company of violating federal law by facilitating the importation of prescription drugs.

Curb says the company does not encourage customers to buy from Canadian pharmacies, it simply helps process orders and track patient records for potentially dangerous combinations of medicines.

Smith said he's interested in the savings that SPC Global could help provide and notes that the FDA has said it does not intend to prosecute cities and counties that pursue cheaper medications abroad.

Curb said he expects Orange County to face some resistance from the federal government.

"They're not going to come in and tell Orange County what you're doing is OK, because that would open the floodgates," Curb said.

Smith aide James Campbell said the county might benefit from allowing Curb's company to manage its entire prescription drug program.

He said the company helps clients save money within the United States as well.

"We came here to learn about importing Canadian drugs safely," Campbell said. "We learned about more than that. We learned about prescription pricing and management and total patient care. Now we have our work cut out."

Curb said it doesn't make sense for federal regulators to worry about the importation of drugs because many of the prescription drugs sold in the United States are manufactured by foreign companies or by the foreign affiliates of U.S. companies.

He said consumers should feel safe about the prescriptions as well.

"Their pickup truck came from Mexico, their shirt from China, their TV from Taiwan. So what's wrong with buying drugs from outside the United States? Nothing," Curb said.

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