By Phil Drake | Montana Watchdog
HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer is asking the federal government to approve a five-year pilot program in Montana in which cheaper prescription drugs would be imported from Canada and sold to state employees.
“By approving a small pilot project to import lower-priced prescription drugs from Canada for Montana’s state employee clinics, we can lower the price of prescription drugs for employees of the state of Montana with medicines that are safe and effective,” Schweitzer wrote in an Aug. 30 letter to Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of U.S. Health and Human Services.
Schweitzer said after testing the program in Montana for five years, the program could be expanded nationwide and force the pharmaceutical industry to “adopt fair pricing for American consumers.”
Fabien Levy, press secretary for Sebelius, told Montana Watchdog that Sebelius received the request but no decision has been made.
The governor handed a copy of the letter to Sebelius to reporters on Aug. 30, the same day he toured the first-ever state employee health clinic in Helena. He said the secretary has the authority to allow prescription drugs to be imported from Canada.
In his letter, Schweitzer noted prescription drug spending has tripled since 1999 and said Montanans spent $607 million paying for prescriptions in 2009, according to national health data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
It’s similar to a proposal the governor made in April 2010, along with Byron Dorgan, then the U.S. senator from North Dakota who left office in 2011. In that letter, they asked for a two-year pilot program to sell cheaper prescription drugs from Canada to residents of Montana and North Dakota. They estimated the approving a pilot project could save both states about $400 million annually.
That pilot program was not approved.
Schweitzer’s Aug. 30 letter notes the secretary can “allow the importation of FDA-approved medicines from Canada by U.S.-licensed pharmacists, wholesalers, and individuals for personal use.”
“… A limited five-year testing and demonstration program in Montana’s employee clinics could, if successful, be expanded to provide relief to millions of American consumers that are currently paying the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs,” Schweitzer wrote.
Pfizer Inc. spokesman Christopher Loder was not immediately available for comment Tuesday, but in 2010 he offered comment on Schweitzer’s earlier proposal and told Montana Watchdog that price controls on medicine could backfire.
He said countries with price controls have to wait longer for new medicines. He said it takes nearly three times longer for people in Canada to get access to a new drug than in the United States.
A spokesman for the Montana Pharmacy Association was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.
Schweitzer started the state employee health clinic without legislative approval, saying it would be financed existing state funds, pay its startup costs in the first year and save the state $1 million in its second year. He plans to open more clinics throughout the state.
Schweitzer said the plan, which he said is used by health-maintenance organizations, would benefit nearly 12,000 employees.
A May 4 financial analysis found that the facility could save as much a $12.3 million during a three-year period and $20 million over five years. The report also projects that once a statewide system is set up and has full participation by state employees and the university system, the savings could be $100 million in five years, officials said. They said those savings are based on cost efficiencies and improving health of members.
Phil Drake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (406) 442-4561.