Columbia-Boone County health department buys pharmaceuticals through popular Minnesota program

The health department has been using the program to buy cheaper pharmaceuticals for the past 10 years.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010 | 7:56 p.m. CST; updated 10:36 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 30, 2010

COLUMBIA — Most of the vaccines that Boone County residents get at the local health department are purchased through a program that's like a Sam’s Club for pharmaceuticals.

It's called the Minnesota Multi-State Contracting Alliance for Pharmacy, and the Columbia-Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services has been using it for the past 10 years to get pharmaceuticals at a lower price.

The health department just renewed its agreement with the program, which it has to do every three to five years so that Minnesota has a recent signature on file.

“It is an agreement that lets us use a kind of ramped up purchasing power,"  Public Health Manager Mary Martin said.  "We get better prices for things than if we purchased them alone.”

The program, created in 1985, allows government entities to buy pharmaceuticals at a lower rate because Minnesota purchases them in bulk. According to the agreement, the program “is a free, voluntary group purchasing organization for government-authorized health care facilities” and is operated by Minnesota’s Department of Administration.

There is no cost for government entities to join the program. Forty-six states, as well as the cities of Chicago and Los Angeles, have agencies that use the program.

The purchasing agent for Columbia, Marilyn Starke, said the health department primarily buys vaccines, tuberculosis tests and birth control pills through the Minnesota contract. She said that makes up about 50 percent of the department's total purchases.

“We can buy a month’s supply of birth control pills for $3,” Starke said. “If we were to buy that through traditional means, that would be $30.”

Martin added, "The focus is to get the best price for what we need."

The health department can use the Minnesota program pricing as leverage for cheaper prices from vendors as well, Martin said. The health department doesn’t use the program for everything. Martin said it sometimes can get a better price for a vaccine if it buys directly through the company.

Martin also said the Minnesota program buys generic forms of pharmaceuticals to keep prices down.

“It costs you $25 if you buy the brand name, but it costs you $10 if you buy the generic,” Martin said. “It’s kind of an artificial reality because they are buying things that are as generic as possible.”

Galo Alava is a physician and an assistant professor of health care management at Saint Leo University in Florida. He said generics are supposed to have the same makeup as name-brand drugs. Prices for name-brand pharmaceuticals have been going up in the past 20 years, and that is why people use more generics nowadays, Alava said.

“Pharmaceutical companies have a lot of expenses. Just trying to put the drug on the market could take a lot of money, effort and time," he said. “If the FDA doesn’t approve the drug, then the money is wasted.”

Alava said the Minnesota program could be very beneficial. The program is mostly selling generics, so consumers have an incentive to buy the generic drug if it doesn’t cost as much as name-brand prices and is still effective, he said.

In addition to the health department, there are four other agencies that have agreements with the Minnesota program. They include Alpha Day Treatment, the Family Health Center and two programs within the Division of Youth Services.

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