LePage wants low-cost Canadian drug program back, but it’s no simple matter

Posted Sept. 11, 2012, at 7:43 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 12, 2012, at 6:26 a.m.
Gov. Paul LePage
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Gov. Paul LePage

AUGUSTA, Maine — At least two state senators and Gov. Paul LePage are interested in a legislative fix that would allow 1,200 Maine households to continue purchasing lower-cost prescription drugs through a Canadian firm that distributes medications by mail.

Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, said Tuesday he has been working on legislation that would allow the Canadian firm, CanaRx, to continue supplying prescription medications to about 900 Maine state employees, 220 employees of the city of Portland and 83 employees of the Guilford-based company Hardwood Products Co.

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he has submitted a legislative request, the first official step toward drafting legislation, in an effort to allow CanaRx to do business in Maine.

A spokeswoman for LePage said Tuesday the governor supports efforts to allow CanaRx to resume doing business in the state but that it’s too early to say whether LePage will propose his own legislation or sign onto another legislative effort.

The legislative proposals are a response to a recent determination by Attorney General William Schneider that CanaRx, as an international firm, cannot be licensed as a pharmacy in Maine.

The determination led CanaRx to shut down its MaineMeds program Aug. 15, a move that could endanger about $3 million in savings budgeted for the state employees’ health plan and create a $200,000 budget hole this year for the city of Portland.

Launched in 2003, CanaRX provides mail-order pharmacy services to public-sector health plans in Illinois, Vermont, Rhode Island and other states. It cuts costs by sending medications directly to prescription holders from pharmaceutical plants in Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. Schneider, however, determined that the international delivery system makes it impossible for the Maine Board of Pharmacy to license CanaRx under Maine law.

“It’s a problem that we need to fix, and we will,” said Thomas.

But Joe Bruno, president of the Maine Board of Pharmacy and CEO of the Augusta-based Community Pharmacies chain, warned that a legislative fix is no simple matter.

“What you’re saying is, you’d rather buy cheaper drugs than hold people to a standard of typical pharmacy practice,” he said. “This is kind of a knee-jerk reaction because nobody’s thinking about public safety here. All they’re thinking about is cheaper drugs.”

A proper legislative fix, Bruno said, would need to address a way for Maine’s pharmacy board to license international pharmacies, allow the board to hold those pharmacies responsible for violations and ensure that the medications they distribute meet the same safety standards as the drugs distributed by all other licensed pharmacies.

“In this country, we have what’s known as pedigree laws. When a drug is manufactured, we can track it. Other countries do not have those same standards,” Bruno said. “If you want to take a simplistic approach, sure you can have a legislative fix, but you’re going to put people’s lives at risk.”

Thomas, the senator from Ripley, said work isn’t complete on his legislative solution to the CanaRx situation, but he said his bill would address the quality of prescription drugs.

“It has to be done carefully and right, and we’re going to do that,” he said. “People have been using CanaRX, like Hardwood Products, for years with no problems. The drugs have to come from a place that, you know, there are quality controls in place.”

Jackson said his legislative proposal isn’t fully fleshed out yet either. It likely will directly address the CanaRx situation, he said, but the nature of the bill could change during the legislative process.

“At this point, I’m just concerned about the people who can’t get those [drugs] that were,” he said. “What’s the alternative? You just pay extremely high prices somewhere else.”

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said, “This is a situation where we’re seemingly all on the same page. If we can find resolution to this that takes not only savings into consideration, but safety, then it’s a win-win for everyone.”

The city of Portland and Hardwood Products Co., which manufactures wooden food and medical products such as ice cream sticks and tongue depressors, have used CanaRx to provide prescription drugs to their employees for eight and six years, respectively.

Maine’s state employee health plan only started using the service earlier this year to deliver brand-name prescription medications for conditions such as chronic asthma and cholesterol maintenance to state employees, their dependents and retirees who don’t qualify for Medicare.

Ginette Rivard, president of the Maine State Employees Association, praised LePage in a statement Tuesday for his “stated intent of finding a legislative solution so that CanaRx can once again provide affordable prescription medication to Maine people.”

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