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Maine Votes In Favor Importing Drugs From Foreign Pharmacies

After months of debate over access to affordable medicines, the Maine legislature overwhelmingly voted in favor of a bill that will allow state residents to purchase prescription drugs from mail-order pharmacies in Canada, the UK, New Zealand and Australia. The bill now goes to the governor.

Known as the ‘Act to Facilitate the Personal Importation of Prescription Drugs From International Mail-Order Pharmacies,’ the bill was introduced after the former attorney general last summer banned Maine businesses from purchasing drugs from mail-order pharmacies, claiming state law was being violated.

The move put an end to buying less expensive meds from brokers over the Canadian border. But many state employees of the state, as well as the city of Portland and one large company, claimed they had saved some $10 million through Internet purchases over several years.

“People need to be able to access life-saving drugs at a reasonable price,” Assistant Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, a Democrat and sponsor of the bill, says in a statement. He noted the ban was instituted by a Republic administration. “This bill gives Mainers more options" (here is the bill and here is the vote).

Maybe so, but as we noted previously, the legislation may rekindle concerns over importing drugs from Canada, which was a contentious topic a few years ago and factored heavily in the push to eliminate counterfeit medicines. This issue, in fact, reappeared on radar screens last year when fake Avastin was discovered to have been ordered from facilities in Canada.

Earlier this year, the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America trade group objected to the legislation and argued that passage would jeopardize patient safety for various reasons, including the possibility of counterfeit meds entering the supply chain, and that savings would actually be minimal.

At the time, PhRMA urged the legislature "to consider the safety and liability concerns associated with importing and facilitating the importation of pharmaceuticals from abroad," and warned that "pharmacies that claim to be Canadian, Irish or British over the Internet might have no ties at all to (those countries). And many pharmacies based in these countries obtain their drugs from Third World sources such as India, Thailand and the Philippines" (here is the statement).

As we noted in a previous story, the FDA and law enforcement authorities took various actions against more than 4,100 Internet pharmacies, including filing civil and criminal charges, seizing products and closing down web sites. CanaRx, the Canadian broker that was shipping drugs to Maine employees until last summer, was previously on the FDA radar screen. The agency issued a 2003 warning letter for illegal practices that may harm consumers.

“However well-intentioned Maine’s importation legislation may be, the health risks of counterfeit medicines far outweigh any cost savings. The bottom line is that the FDA cannot guarantee the safety or efficacy of any prescription medication from outside the US supply chain, and when medicines are not FDA approved patients are put in danger,” Marv Shepherd, president of Partnership For Safe Medicines, a non-profit that is aligned with industry and pharmacists, writes us. 

“Other health programs in the state are required to use FDA approved drugs, and state-supported programs should be no different. Frankly, it’s second-class medicine for the citizens of Maine. We are hopeful Governor LePage will veto this deeply flawed legislation, and would like to remind Maine residents that significant cost savings can be found from approved online pharmacies right here in the United States.”

Of course, there is disagreement. Sharon Treat, a Maine representative who supports the bill and is executive director of the National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices, says the move is needed. “For years, the FDA has refused to seriously consider importation. At the same time, for the most part U.S. residents do not benefit from the rigorous price negotiation or fee setting that other countries routinely engage in. As a result, U.S. residents pay high prices for drugs available in other countries for a fraction of the consumer costs in this country,” she writes us.

“For several years, Maine businesses, the state employee health program and some municipalities have imported cheaper medicines from Canada and other countries without any problem whatsoever. These drugs go through the same safety reviews as "US" drugs and, in many cases, are manufactured in the same or similar facilities. This legislation simply authorizes recent practice and will save the state budget $6 million to $7 million at a time when every penny counts. Certainly, it would be better to be able to buy these drugs locally at affordable prices. However, until such time as our government commits to true price negotiation, importation is an option that makes sense and, when properly supervised, poses no more risk to consumers than purchasing from US sources."

Similarly, Gabriel Levitt of, which helps people find safe online pharmacies from Canada, says that “I think it's great for the people of Maine who will have greater access to affordable medication. Opponents will claim grave safety threats but licensed pharmacies in other countries sell the exact same medication sold here that is just as safe -- just much less pricey.”


Posted: June 2013