JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri is joining Illinois and Wisconsin in a new Internet program that helps residents buy cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and Europe, despite a federal ban on the imports.
Gov. Bob Holden traveled to Chicago on Thursday to announce Missouri’s participation in the I-SaveRx program, which was spearheaded by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
“As governors, we’re all concerned about the high cost of prescription drugs, especially as it affects those on limited income,” Holden said. “It seemed to me the logical next step for Missouri to provide options for safe and affordable prescription drugs for all our citizens.”
The program works through a Canadian clearinghouse to connect residents to 45 foreign pharmacies and wholesalers approved by Illinois health inspectors. It offers up to 50 percent off U.S. retail prices on about 100 prescription medications.
Since its launch Oct. 4 by Illinois and Wisconsin, about 250 people have enrolled in I-SaveRx and more than 17,500 have requested enrollment forms, Illinois officials said. Missouri residents could enroll starting Thursday.
“I am confident the I-SaveRx program offers both safety and savings,” Holden said.
But the Missouri Pharmacy Association expressed emphatic opposition, while citing safety concerns about the program.
“It’s an illegal scheme,” said Randy Meents, a Greenfield pharmacy owner who is president of the state association. “We believe it is unsafe for Missouri residents to import drugs outside of the United States health care system.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration opposes the reimportation of prescription drugs, saying it can’t guarantee the safety of drugs sold through foreign pharmacies. But the FDA hasn’t stopped states from setting up Internet sites to help consumers buy drugs through Canadian pharmacies.
Meents said the Internet drug importation program could also hurt Missouri’s economy. He said the state has more than 4,000 registered pharmacists and more than 10,000 pharmacy technicians. Missouri is also home to several pharmaceutical manufacturers and wholesale drug distributors whose profits could be hurt if customers turn to Canada.
Prescription drugs are often cheaper in Canada and other countries because of government price controls. The U.S. Congress has considered legalizing prescription drugs importation, but has met strong opposition from the administration and the pharmaceutical industry.
Several other states also operate Web sites linking people to drugs from Canada. But the I-SaveRx program goes further by including pharmacies in Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Missouri already has numerous private businesses linking customers to Canadian pharmacies. Holden has said a state-sponsored program could help ensure safety.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Claire McCaskill, who defeated Holden in the Aug. 3 party primary, has called for the creation of a state-sponsored Web site to help Missouri residents buy imported medicines from Canada or the United Kingdom. Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Blunt, however, has expressed concerns about safety and the potential for violating federal law.
In a brief statement Thursday, Blunt said: “I strongly support the safe reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada. As governor, I will monitor the safety and success of the program and make improvements or corrections if necessary.”
Campaigning Thursday in Springfield, McCaskill criticized Blunt while stressing her support for a Canadian drug program.
“He’s willing to do it if it’s safe. That’s exactly what the pharmaceutical drug companies are saying,” McCaskill said. “His position is the same as the pharmaceutical drug industry. My position is the same as seniors in this state who are dying for some kind of relief.”