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Illinois Might Purchase Drugs From Canada, Saving Millions

By Monica Davey

The New York Times -- CHICAGO

Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois is considering whether his state should begin buying prescription drugs from Canada for its employees, a decision that, he says, could save tens of millions of dollars, but could also put him at odds with the Food and Drug Administration over the issue.

“It doesn’t matter where you go in our state, you meet people who are struggling with the cost of prescription drugs,” Blagojevich, a Democrat, said in an interview on Monday afternoon. “If you can buy the same drug made by the same company, and it is safe and it costs less, then that makes sense.”

Illinois taxpayers spent $340 million this year, a 15 percent increase over last year, to provide drugs for 230,000 current and retired state employees, the governor said. That figure is projected to grow by 17 percent next year.

The cost of prescription drugs in Canada and most other industrialized countries is regulated by the government, unlike in the United States. Last year, drug prices in the United States were 67 percent higher than in Canada, a report by a Canadian health agency found.

But the FDA bars people from importing drugs that have not been approved by the agency, and bars the resale of drugs made here, exported elsewhere, then returned here.

“We’re concerned about the dangers here,” said William K. Hubbard, associate commissioner of the FDA. He said there could be risks from drugs bought in Canada, including those not approved by the FDA and not made in the United States, those that have expired or were improperly stored and those without labels.

On Tuesday, agency officials plan to meet with Mayor Michael J. Albano of Springfield, Mass. Springfield began buying drugs in Canada this summer for those of the city’s 7,000 workers and 2,000 retired workers who chose the optional plan.

Depending on how many workers participate, the city could save at least $4 million a year, Albano said. So far, he said, some 1,000 employees have signed up.