updated 10/4/2004 3:20:43 PM ET 2004-10-04T19:20:43

Illinois and Wisconsin on Monday launched the nation’s first state-sponsored program to help residents buy cheaper prescription drugs from both Europe and Canada — despite federal laws banning the practice.

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The program, called I-SaveRx, works through a Canada-based clearinghouse and claims it can save residents 25 percent to 50 percent off U.S. retail prices on about 100 prescription medications.

“Now, the nearly 13 million people who live in Illinois and the more than five million people who live in Wisconsin will have the opportunity to save hundreds — and in some cases even thousands — of dollars each year on the high cost of their medicine,” Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said in announcing the start of the program.

“Our seniors will no longer have to spend more money than they have just to afford the medicine they need,” he said.

Program includes pharmacies in Canada, Ireland, U.K.
By including pharmacies in Ireland and the United Kingdom, I-SaveRx goes beyond programs in other states that direct residents on how to buy prescription drugs from Canada, where drugs are often cheaper because of government price controls.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration opposes such reimporting of prescription drugs, saying it cannot guarantee the safety of drugs sold through foreign pharmacies. But it has not stopped Minnesota and other states from setting up Internet sites to help consumers buy drugs through Canadian pharmacies.

Blagojevich has been a leading figure in the push to buy prescription drugs from Canada. Illinois last year requested federal approval to set up a pilot program for the state to import drugs from Canada for state employees and retirees, but the request was rejected.

Rather than drop the idea, the Blagojevich administration sent teams to Europe to study the safety and feasibility of importing prescription drugs from Ireland and United Kingdom, as well as from Canada. Wisconsin recently joined the effort.

“There’s no reason why our citizens should have to pay twice as much for safe prescription medicines as the rest of the world, but that’s exactly the situation we’re in because the federal government refuses to take on the drug companies,” Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle said.

The FDA had no immediate comment on the move Monday.

Illinois, which created the I-SaveRx program, will not import the drugs itself. Instead, it has contracted with a Canadian company to connect residents with 45 foreign pharmacies and wholesalers that have been approved by Illinois health inspectors and verified by Wisconsin.

The clearinghouse will provide information about 100 of the most common brand-name drugs used to treat chronic or long-term conditions.

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