AUGUSTA, Maine — The House has given all but final approval, 91- to-51, to a measure that would require drug makers to pay for a system to dispose of unwanted prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications.
“The manufacturer has some responsibility, and that is what this bill says,” said Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. “What we have done is to say to the manufacturers if you have a better way to do this than the pilot program, then you can do it.”
She said the measure allows the drug makers to set up a system that is different from the state’s limited disposal program that has operated since 2007. It allows people to mail unwanted drugs to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. Some local police agencies also have held events allowing Mainers to dispose of unwanted drugs through the agencies.
“The real concern is how much this is going to cost,” Perry told the House. “So, we have put a cap on this of $1.5 million.”
She argued that would amount to less than $10,000 a year per drug manufacturer. There are 146 drug makers registered with the Maine Board of Pharmacy.
Rep. Meredith Strange-Burgess, R-Cumberland, opposed the bill but agreed the issue needs to be addressed. She owns an advertising agency and said the bill mandates an advertising campaign that has to achieve 75 percent recognition of the program’s existence by Mainers by next March.
“Having done this for my business,” she said, “to get to a 75 percent awareness of the program is going to take a lot of dough.”
But Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, a retired family doctor, said the program is needed, and that drug companies need to play a role in disposing of unwanted drugs that have shown up in groundwater studies. She said she was surprised when she would ask patients to bring their unneeded drugs to her office for disposal.
“Elderly patients in particular would often walk in with big brown paper sacks full of unused medications,” she said.
But some in the House defended the drug companies. Rep. Michael Celli, R-Brewer, objected to the arguments that drug makers should help pay for a disposal system.
“I rise against this bill,” he said, “and one of the main reasons is the bashing of our pharmaceutical companies.”
Celli said it costs a lot of money to develop and market drugs, but that drug companies are no more profitable than other major manufacturing segments of the economy.
“I am well aware of the cost of bringing a molecule from invention to the market,” he said, “and how many of those molecules have a lot of money — millions — spent on it and they never make it on the market.”
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the assistant House floor leader, argued that while the problem of disposing of unwanted drugs is a national issue, Maine should not wait for Congress to act because the state has a serious problem with prescription drugs.
“We should do what we can do,” he said. “Maine is the leader in prescription drug-related crime in this country. Maine is the leader in prescription drug-related deaths in the country. We can do something about this.”
During public hearings on the measure, representatives of law enforcement agencies testified Maine has had an increase in robberies and theft directly related to prescription drugs. Trafficking in prescription drugs rivals the trafficking in illegal drugs in parts of the state.
Many of the new disposal system’s details will be crafted by the Department of Environmental Protection. The system would not be operational until 2012 after rules are developed.
While the measure had majority support of the Health and Human Services Committee, the two Democratic senators split on the issue.
Sen. Joe Brannigan, D-Portland, supported the House-passed measure, but Assistant Senate Majority Leader Lisa Marrache, D-Waterville, is opposed. A doctor, she is preparing an amendment that would create a voluntary disposal fund and said several drug companies have said they would contribute.
The Senate has yet to consider the measure.