2003-11-05 / Seniors

Senior Spotlight

Drug Mfr. Doesn
By John Toscano
Senior Spotlight By John Toscano

Drug Mfr. Doesn’t Like Mayor’s Plan To Import Cheaper Drugs

Pfizer, the Manhattan-based pharmaceutical manufacturing heavyweight, took exception last week to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hopes of convincing federal authorities to permit New York City and other municipalities and states to purchase and import lower-cost drugs from Canada in order to reduce prescription drug costs for some city dwellers.

Pfizer cited several possible dangers arising from such imports, which is why the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) opposes imports and has blocked them. But Thomas Frieden, Commissioner of the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, backed up the mayor saying that the drugs which would be imported are FDA approved.

Canada buys billions of dollars worth of drugs from American manufacturers at much cheaper prices than Americans pay for them here in the United States because Canada has price controls that keep drug prices lower north of the border. The Canadian importers also maintain that their drug safety standards are as high as the FDA’s, which could be the basis of Frieden’s statements.

The mayor jumped on the bandwagon for the lower-priced drugs from Canada last week when he announced he was signing a petition circulated by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. It urges the FDA to authorize drug imports from Canada for Illinois and several other states that are plagued by outrageously high prescription drug costs for state employee healthcare plans.

The high cost of the plans is causing severe budget problems in those states and many major cities, such as New York. But the FDA’s longstanding policy has been to block imports from Canada because of possible counterfeits being slipped in. FDA spokespersons noted that some drugs sold in Canada are manufactured in other foreign countries and do not meet FDA standards.

In signing on to the Blagojevich petition, the major estimated that New York state could save $643 million a year if the imports were allowed. The mayor said Medicaid costs, which are partially paid for by the city, could also be shaved by $108 million a year under the drug import plan.

Pfizer is not alone in its position on drug imports from Canada. Other major drug manufacturers also oppose the imports because, basically, Canadian distributors purchase the drugs from the United States manufacturers for sometimes 100 percent less then the drugs cost in the U.S. and then can pass the savings on to American consumers. But the U.S. manufacturers lose millions of dollars in profits because U.S. consumers are buying not their high-priced drug products but the same drugs imported from Canada and costing less.

About a year ago, a bill introduced by Congressmember Joseph Crowley (D–Queens/Bronx) to authorize drug imports from Canada was signed into law. However, the FDA blocked its implementation, citing dangers in the plans to consumers. That could indicate that the mayor and Blagojevich are in for a tough struggle against the FDA.

PREZ PUSHES MEDICARE Rx PLAN: President George W. Bush again exhorted Congress to come to an agreement on a plan to add prescription drug coverage to Medicare. The president made his plea several days after a deadline self imposed by Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill, came and went. A House–Senate conference committee trying to reconcile different bills passed by each house and dominated by Republicans has been unable to formulate legislation acceptable to both sides.

In his comments last week, the president touched on some of the different issues dividing the two houses. Among the main ones is giving private health plans a larger roll in Medicare. Bush and Republicans are pushing to have this included in the legislation; Democrats oppose it just as strongly, charging that Republicans hope eventually to end the traditional Medicare plan, which has worked very well over the past 38 years.

In his comments, the president said private plans could offer better coverage at more affordable prices. But critics respond that those claims are just not true, that private insurers offering so-called "Medicare HMOs," have increased premium costs steadily once they got their foot in the door. Also, these plans would not cover many seniors.

The president, addressing another thorny issue, said he has been assured that if Medicare does offer prescription drug coverage, employers presently paying for prescription drug coverage would not drop their plans. But retirees and labor unions fear they will and they want assurances written into any new law.

Meanwhile, the negotiators have reportedly agreed on other issues locking a final agreement.

•A proposal to charge patients a co-payment for home health care services, proposed by Republicans, has been dropped. It would have cost $40-$50 for every 60-day period of care for the disabled and ailing seniors.

•An agreement among rival sides to expand access to generic drugs, which are cheaper than brand name drugs so that seniors’ drug cost could be kept lower and there would be lower out-of-pocket costs under the plan as well.

The president and pols in both parties want a Medicare Rx plan passed so that they can woo senior voters in next year’s presidential election. But the final plan must offer true benefits for seniors or seniors will in turn be looking to blame the party that stood in the way of passing a beneficial plan.

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