WisBusiness: Former Canadian lawmaker says drug importation a dangerous idea

By Joanne M. Haas

MADISON — Government leaders seeking to build prescription drug pipelines funneling cheaper Canadian prescription drugs into this country may end up doing more harm than good to their constituent consumers, says a former Canadian legislator turned health care consultant.

Chris Ward, who served as a Cabinet minister and government House Leader for the province of Ontario, says he understands efforts to import and reimport drugs from Canada is to relieve the high costs of prescription drugs facing many Americans. 
But any drug made for Canadian consumption and distributed in the United States is done so entirely outside the regulated distribution network, he says, adding that presents the opportunities for an illegal or unapproved product to cross the border. “There are no guarantees for consumers that they are getting the real deal,” he says.

Ward’s warning counters the efforts of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, who last month unveiled a state Web site boasting an online petition seeking citizen signatures to urge the federal government to legal such drug importations. Doyle has been one of the nation’s more vocal governors wanting to take advantage of the cheaper prescription drug prices posted on Canadian pharmacy Web sites.

When Doyle first became involved in the issue last year, he was concentrating on reimportation. But in recent weeks, the Democrat expanded his reference to importation, meaning either U.S.-made drugs, or U.S.-approved drugs — the same drugs which are available in this country.

Ward was in Madison Tuesday for a briefing on the issues related to importing prescription drugs from Canada. The event was sponsored by the Wisconsin Health Care Access Network and the Pharmaceutical Research and the Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). Tom Moore, PhRMA legislative counsel based in Madison, said the briefing was held to counter what
his group says has been a one-sided debate to date.

“We’re here today to say that it’s not that simple of an issue. There are safety concerns, issue of prices,” he said in an interview. “Trying to skirt our laws regarding importation is probably not a helpful answer.”

Moore also said the drugs coming into this country are not FDA-approved drugs. “We are seeing a trans-shipment of drugs from other countries into Canada warehouses and then back to the American consumer,” Moore said, adding it is difficult to guarantee the product’s safety. “We certainly are not reimporting FDA-approved drugs. That’s not what is happening.”

Doyle repeatedly has said publicly his goal is to secure the federal government approval to allow the state government to facilitate the purchase of Canadian pharmaceuticals by Wisconsin citizens through the new Web site,www.drugsavings.wi.gov. “Those drugs — the same drugs that are available in the United States — are on the Canadian market at a substantial discount off of the U.S. price,” Doyle says.

But, in an interview, Ward said it is misguided to think importing drugs carrying the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval is possible.

“The only person that can bring in an FDA-approved drug… that’s manufactured in Canada, is the manufacturer itself,” Ward says. “Any drug that is manufactured in Canada, to FDA-approved standards … carries American prices. It doesn’t carry Canadian prices.”

Ward says claims and goals of importing FDA-approved drugs from Canada to save American consumers dollars are “misguided. The only way that American consumers can save money on a drug from Canada is if it is manufactured for consumption in Canada or consumption in another country.”

W. Charles Becoat, of the FDA, also attended the Tuesday forum and said the agency would have an extremely difficult time ensuring the safety of such drugs when they are distributed outside of the regulatory system.

Ward added the majority of the 52 Canadian patient groups surveyed about the situation are “demanding” the Canadian government act. “Don’t allow any more Canadian drugs to go into the United States under these schemes,” Ward describes as the groups’ collective message. “The reason is we are facing shortages of drugs and shortages of pharmacists. It is creating real concerns about the safety of our own supply system, because countries all over the world — Third World countries — are trying to ship product into Canada for distribution in the United States. We want it shut down.”

When it comes to America’s pursuit of cheaper Canadian prescription drugs, Ward says there is another issue in place.

“Is there a way to import Canadian cost controls?” he says. “Because that’s what this is really all about.”