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Legalize prescription imports, says CVS boss

/ Source: The Associated Press

The push to legalize prescription drug imports has a surprising new ally as the issue gains momentum in Congress.

CVS Corp., which operates more than 4,100 pharmacies nationwide, became the first drug store chain to support the importation of prescription medicines.

Thomas Ryan, CVS chairman, president and chief executive officer, said such a move would be a recognition of reality — a growing, somewhat shadowy business enterprise that he said is valued at $2.5 billion to $3 billion a year, far more than other estimates of the cross-border drug trade.

Pharmacies also are hoping to prevent the loss of sales to the foreign drug industry, especially since some studies have shown that purchases of drugs from abroad have cut into U.S. drug store sales.

Ryan’s comments came a day after Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said legalizing imports appears inevitable, a notable statement because the Bush administration and GOP leaders in Congress have cited safety concerns as the main reason that they oppose drug imports.

A Thompson spokesman said Wednesday that the secretary, a savvy political veteran who served 14 years as Wisconsin’s governor, was offering his personal political opinion, not reflecting a change in the Bush administration’s position.

But lawmakers agreed that there is increasing momentum in support of the issue, even among Republicans who voted against legalization last year. Lawmakers who are talking up the new Medicare drug discount card are encountering complaints from constituents who say it will not do enough to lower prices.

“I just sense the buzz,” Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., said. “A lot of members are in their districts talking about this drug discount card. ... I have no doubt that many seniors are bringing this issue to their attention.”

Boehlert voted against importation last year, but now supports drug imports from Canada.

Safety issue overblown

Ira Loss, a health care expert at Washington Analysis, a financial research company, said Thompson’s comments send a signal that the “White House is prepared to bail on importation for political purposes if they need it near the end” of the presidential campaign.

White House aides have said they are awaiting the task force’s report, which could come as early as this summer.

Ryan and three Republican governors who also testified Wednesday said the federal government can no longer avoid the issue because of rising drug costs and Americans’ increasing use of international pharmacies.

“The safety concerns largely, if not entirely, melt away,” said Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who wants to permit Americans to fill prescriptions through licensed Canadian pharmacies. Govs. James Douglas of Vermont and John Hoeven of North Dakota also testified.

Twenty state attorneys general also expressed their support and suggested that individual states, which already buy drugs in large quantities for their employees and retirees, could be responsible for safety certifications.

Ryan said prescription drugs can be imported safely by licensing foreign companies, using established distributors of pharmaceuticals in this country and selling the drugs through CVS and other pharmacies.

Even CVS, which Ryan said buys $16 billion worth of drugs a year at wholesale prices, pays 14 percent to 40 percent more than consumers in other countries. Such a difference, he said, tells him that consumers would see savings from imported drugs, even if they are passing through several entities before prescriptions are filled.

Although opponents cite safety as a reason for continuing to outlaw drug imports, Thompson has noted that expense is, also. He said that allowing drug imports could be costly because inspectors would have to step up inspections of shipments and foreign pharmaceutical plants to ensure safety.