Appleton targets high drug prices

The legislator’s bill would let Washington residents choose Canadian pharmaceuticals.

Cancer’s hard enough. Choosing between groceries and medicine to treat the disease doesn’t make it any easier.

Rep. Sherry Appleton knows from her mother’s battle with breast cancer that life-saving prescription drugs often come at a cost many cannot afford.

Her 88-year-old mother found relief though, cutting an $836 monthly drug bill to $300 by purchasing her medications from Canadian pharmacies. Appleton hopes other Washington residents will be able to do the same with a bill that passed the state House Friday.

“Having senior citizens decide between housing, food or prescription drugs puts them in an untenable situation,” the Poulsbo Democrat said. “This is common sense legislation that will make life easier for people like my mom.”

House Bill 1168 would allow the state Health Department to license Canadian pharmacies, permitting residents to purchase drugs for a fraction of U.S. prices. The bill is the freshman legislator’s first, and must now pass through the halls of the Senate and over the governor’s desk before becoming law.

Washington residents spent more than $1 billion on prescription drugs between 2001 and 2003, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services. High drug prices are a big reason why “health-care costs are out of control,” Appleton said.

Appleton, a former lobbyist, believes that “by buying prescription medicines from Canada, taxpayers (can) save at least $300 million a year. That amount alone could restore all the cuts made in state services last year.”

The rising cost of medicine has spurred some residents into risky cost-cutting measures. Between 20 to 25 percent of Washington drug purchasers delayed a prescription due to lack of money, skipped doses, or cut pills to make the medicine last longer, according to a 2002 study by the Washington branch of the AARP.

The study also found that 82 percent of Washington residents feel strongly that the state should make prescription drugs more affordable for those most in need.

While federal law restricts the reimportation of Canadian drugs, it does allow Americans to buy their own medications.

Appleton’s bill would ease the burden on individual buyers by crafting an agreement validating pharmacy licenses between Washington and Canada. HB 1168 could also enable the state to inspect Canadian pharmacies and drugs, ensuring Washington’s quality and safety standards.

Some state Republicans aren’t convinced residents should look to Canada to solve Washington’s prescription drug troubles.

“The answer to this problem is in our own borders, not in another country,” said Rep. Richard Curtis (R-La Center). “We can take care of this. Let’s get to work.”

Passage of HB 1168 was divided along party lines, with only one Republican crossing over for the 54-41 vote.

Rep. Barbara Bailey (R-Oak Harbor) said she’s not sure Canadian drugs are safe. She challenged Appleton’s claim that the federal Food and Drug Administration has never had a case of an American dying from faulty Canadian medications.

“Most of the time when a person dies of a heart (ailment), they don’t go and look to see if that person’s drugs were not the quality they should be,” she said. “I can’t say for sure people are dying or not dying from bad drugs.

“Do you want to take that chance?”

Bainbridge senior Vera Zellanack does, and has. Zellanack often traveled south of the border from her former California home for cheaper blood pressure drugs.

“They’d send us, a bus full of seniors, to Tijuana,” she said. “The drugs there were safe. There was no talk of problems.”

If Mexican drugs did the job safely and cheaply, why shouldn’t Canadian, she asked.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to go up there,” she said. “Canada’s a sanitary place and if they can make things more affordable, you can’t blame anyone for buying from the Canadians.”

While seniors could see some financial relief, increased reliance on Canadian drugs could hurt local pharmacists.

“Obviously, as a dispensing pharmacist, I think it (stinks),” said Bruce Von Norman, owner of the Medicine Shoppe on Winslow Way. “The bottom line is my business will erode.”

While Von Norman estimates up to 80 percent of his customers are insured, and therefore less likely to turn to Canada, his uninsured customer base is likely to dwindle.

Von Norman believes it unfair that individuals and not businesses like his will be permitted to buy Canadian drugs.

“If the state is going to allow citizens to take advantage of prescription drugs (from Canada), why can’t a retail pharmacy do the same?” he asked.

Some representatives that opposed the bill think the measure could also harm the U.S. pharmaceuticals industry and cut into medical research funding.

“If we find a cheap alternative, all the (drug) development money will dry up,” said Rep. Jim Dunn. (R-Cascade Park). “The cure for the incurable disease won’t be there when we come down with it.”

But Eliz Johnson, an island senior, said she’ll shed no tears over drug companies’ lost revenues.

“Instead of the huge salaries for the bosses, they could lower the prices,” she suggested.

Johnson, who also depended on drugs produced outside the U.S. while living in Mexico, believes some American pharmaceuticals companies are manufacturing dangerous products.

“They hurt us,” she said, referring to the recent recall of a number of prescription drugs from U.S. markets. “Look at all they’re taking back now. Some of those (drugs) have been terrible.”

Johnson relies on government assistance to acquire her prescriptions but has, in the past, depended on “sample drugs” sold cheaply or even given for free by pharmaceutical companies.

“They test drugs on the poor,” she said. “They give them out to see our reaction.”

Johnson hopes the availability of cheap Canadian drugs will dissuade low-income residents from turning to sample medications.

Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington, agrees that U.S. drug producers often put harmful medications on the market. He believes that the Canadian government has sometimes been more decisive in recalling questionable drugs, such as a popular attention deficit disorder drug that continues to be sold in the U.S.

“The FDA is not doing a good job protecting the American public from dangerous prescription drugs, as we’ve recently seen with Vioxx and similar drugs,” he said. “Canada is quicker to pull drugs off the market in many cases.”

While noting no one can guarantee the complete safety of every drug, Appleton said not pushing forward with her bill could endanger many Washington residents who depend on prescription medications.

“We need to pass this bill and give our seniors a break,” she said. “To do nothing is more dangerous.”

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