March 13, 2013

Bill would let CanaRx sell drugs in Maine

Lawmakers hear arguments for and against letting international brokers send pharmaceuticals here.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Public and private employers urged lawmakers Wednesday to allow a Canadian mail-order company that saved workers and employers millions of dollars on prescription drugs to resume operations in Maine.

The major arguments for and against the bill, heard by the Legislature's Labor Committee, boiled down to price versus the safety of buying drugs sight unseen from other countries.

Officials from state government, the city of Portland and a wood products company in Guilford said they collectively saved more than $6 million and had no quality problems buying through CanaRx until state regulators barred it from operating in Maine last year.

The drug broker said its brand-name drugs come from well-regulated pharmacies in countries that negotiate prices with drug companies, unlike the United States.

That's why it can pass savings – often 50 percent or more on certain types of drugs – on to American consumers.

But Maine pharmacists said consumers can't be sure of the safety of products they get from mail-order sources and that state pharmacies are at a disadvantage against unregulated, international brokers.

While CanaRx says its drugs come from pharmacies in countries with standards as stringent or more so than those in the U.S., the federal Food and Drug Administration recommends getting drugs only from legal sources in the United States because of unknowns in the sourcing and manufacturing processes.

"With unregulated drugs from any mail-order facility in the world, it is what we don't know that scares me and should scare you," said Robert Morrissette, director of continuing education at the University of New England College of Pharmacy.

L.D. 449, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley, would affirm the right of Maine consumers to buy prescription drugs through certain international mail-order companies.

He introduced the bill in response to a ruling in August by then-Attorney General William Schneider that CanaRx couldn't operate in Maine because it couldn't be licensed by the state.

Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine State Employees Association, which agree on little, both expressed disappointment at Schneider's decision.

MSEA President Ginette Rivard testified Wednesday.

"Yesterday, I picked up a brand-name prescription at the local pharmacy. I paid $45 and my plan was charged $780," said Rivard. "Under CanaRx, that same prescription would cost $210. That's pretty easy math."

The bill's opponents included PhRMA, which represents major pharmaceutical companies.

Chris Collins, senior program adviser for CanaRx, testified that in April 2012, the Maine Division of Employee Health and Benefits contracted with CanaRx for some drug services, saving $1.2 million in four months for 819 state employees before the program was suspended.

Collins said CanaRx projected that it would have saved the state $6 million in a year.

Schneider's decision also affected Portland city employees and workers at Guilford-based Hardwood Products Co.

In written testimony, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said the city contracted with CanaRx to provide prescription drugs to city employees from 2004 until last year.

Almost 17,000 prescriptions were filled, saving the city $3.2 million, according to the mayor's written testimony.

"Maine businesses and municipalities need to be able to pursue and utilize programs that will help reduce health insurance and coverage costs," Brennan said. "L.D. 449 is a reasonable fix that would allow Portland to resume its program and save both the (taxpayer) and our employees money."

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

On Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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