updated 9/21/2004 5:49:51 PM ET 2004-09-21T21:49:51

The county that is home to the Food and Drug Administration took a first step Tuesday toward buying prescription drugs from Canada, despite FDA warnings that such a practice would be illegal.

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In a 7-2 vote, the Montgomery County Council passed a resolution that instructs county benefits managers to solicit bids from companies that sell Canadian prescription drugs to Americans. The council hopes to have the program in place by Feb. 1.

The suburban Washington county would join several other states and jurisdictions that have turned to Canada and other foreign countries to try to hold down prescription drug costs for public employees.

Several council members who voted for the resolution were emboldened by the FDA’s failure to sue in those cases, saying it is a sign the agency is reluctant to enforce its position.

“The credibility of the FDA is being called into question,” said Council President Steven Silverman. “They can’t have it both ways.”

Warning letters sent
The FDA, headquartered in Rockville, has sent warning letters to governments that have adopted similar plans and has filed legal action against some suppliers.

The agency has warned that it cannot verify the safety of drugs sent from other countries and that some medications might be bogus or dangerous. The warning letters stress that local officials could be held liable if anyone is harmed by drugs sent from Canada.

William Hubbard, the FDA’s associate commissioner for policy and planning, said the agency still may file lawsuits for violations of the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, which prohibits the importation of drugs from foreign countries in most cases.

“We have held our fire thus far, but we may have to end up suing a county,” he said. Montgomery County officials “have undermined their oath to uphold the nation’s law. If we end up suing, I think we would win.”

Montgomery’s plan would allow 40,000 employees and retirees of several county agencies to buy prescription drugs through the mail from a Canadian supplier. The county predicts it will save up to $16 million if all employees take part during the first year.

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