In this file photo, a number of Ritalin SR pills. City leaders want to change Maine law to allow mail-order prescription drug purchases from Canada – a practice that saved the city $3.2 million over an eight-year period before the state shut it down this fall.
By Randy Billings
PORTLAND – City officials want Maine law changed to allow mail-order prescription drug purchases from Canada – a practice that saved Portland $3.2 million over an eight-year period before the state shut it down in the fall.
Prescription drug costs, and the potential for significant losses in education funding, emerged as the top legislative priorities Thursday morning during a meeting between the city officials and legislators who represent Portland.
It was the first such meeting since the elections Nov. 6, and nine of the 10 legislators attended to hear about the city's top concerns.
Mayor Michael Brennan asked the lawmakers to back a bill that would allow the city to resume prescription drug purchases from Canada and other countries.
Attorney General William Schneider suspended such purchases in September after local pharmacies complained that the drug suppliers did not have state licenses.
The city's 200 employees face a $200,000 increase in co-payments alone because of the attorney general's ruling, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg. And the city, which covers drug costs for employees, faces $200,000 in additional costs.
"That's a significant amount of money," Brennan said. "This is a major priority for us."
For years, the Portlandmeds program bought prescription drugs from CanaRx, which provides brand-name medications by mail.
CanaRx offers reduced prices to health plan providers and does not charge co-payments to participants, so it creates significant savings.
CanaRx filled three months worth of prescriptions before service stopped, which has so far eased the impact of the change, said Clegg.
Portland had been using CanaRx for years, but the state was looking to start a similar program for its much larger work force, to save an estimated $3 million a year.
Brennan said the city has heard indirectly from Gov. Paul LePage that he supports allowing the program to resume. But such a bill may run into opposition.
The Retailers Association of Maine – formerly the Maine Merchants Association – opposed the Canadian drug program when it was being considered by the attorney general.
Curtis Picard, the group's executive director, said in an interview Thursday that the group's primary concern remains: CanaRx is not licensed to do business in Maine.
That makes it difficult to know exactly where the drugs are coming from, and possibly puts patients at risk, he said.
"We were anticipating some sort of legislation," Picard said. "We'll have to see what gets proposed."
Education and transportation also are priorities for Portland in the legislative session that will begin next month.
Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said he is proposing a change in state law to fund charter schools with a separate line item in the budget – much like the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone – rather than by diverting funding from public school districts.
Portland school officials estimate that the district could lose as much as $10,000 in state funding for every public school student who chooses to attend the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science, which is scheduled to open in Portland in the fall of 2013.
The estimate is based on Baxter Academy's projection of 50 high school freshman and sophomores from Portland attending the charter school, and assumes that the 50 students would fall into demographic categories that trigger additional state aid, such as economically disadvantaged or special education.
The lost subsidies, including transportation funding, could cost the district more than $535,000 a year, according to the school department's estimate.
Brennan said he continues to oppose charter schools, but the change proposed by Alfond would "have a very positive financial effect on the city of Portland."
David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education, said the magnet school in Limestone is funded through the state's kindergarten-through-12th-grade funding program. Putting charter schools in that category would shift costs from city residents to residents throughout the state, he said.
Portland's other priorities include:
• State funding to rebuild Hall Elementary School and improve older elementary schools. The city may move forward on its own, which could disqualify it from state support.
• Securing $22 million to $25 million to build a transportation hub with structured parking on Thompson's Point, which is poised for a $100 million development, including an arena, offices, restaurants, a hotel and a sports medicine lab.
• Legislation to create the Southern Maine Regional Transportation Authority, which could eventually merge with Metro, South Portland Bus, Shuttlebus Zoom and other transportation agencies.
• A regional lodging and/or meals tax.
After the meeting, Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said the city's legislative priorities are consistent with what she has heard in the past, except for the prescription drug and charter school issues.
While some initiatives -- such as a local option sales tax -- have failed in the past and will likely encounter resistance in the upcoming session, Haskell said a new coalition of mayors from cities around Maine could play a major role in helping advance Portland's priorities.
"The value of the Mayor's Coalition cannot be underestimated," she said.
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan