CHICAGO – After nearly a year of working diligently to secure federal cooperation in providing Illinois residents with access to safe, affordable drugs from Canada, Governor Rod R. Blagojevich and Congressman Rahm Emanuel today announced Illinois will become the first state in the nation to help consumers get a better deal on their medications by giving them access to lower cost prescription drugs available in Canada, the United Kingdom (UK) and Ireland. Prescription drugs in Canada and Europe are typically 25-50% cheaper than in the United States.
Illinois will contract with a Pharmacy Benefits Manager (PBM) to establish a clearinghouse of state-inspected and approved pharmacies and wholesalers in Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom. The new system will be available on-line and will be the first in the United States to reach beyond Canada to meet the growing demand for affordable drugs, and to provide ongoing state oversight of foreign pharmacies.
“We have taken every possible step we could think of to convince the FDA, the Congress, and anyone and everyone who will listen, that people across Illinois, and across our country, deserve access to safe and lower cost prescription drugs,” said Gov. Blagojevich. “We can't keep asking people to spend more money than they have just to afford the medicine they need. We can't keep asking the 500,000 senior citizens who live in Illinois and lack prescription drug coverage to keep deciding ‘do I pay for my medicine or do I buy my groceries?’ These are real choices people have to make every single day. And it shouldn't have to be that way. And they shouldn't have to keep waiting for their government to help them. The federal government has failed to act. So it's time that we do.”
In May, Gov. Blagojevich dispatched a delegation made up of members of his staff, the Office of Special Advocates for Prescription Drugs and the Departments of Public Health and Professional Regulation to research whether Illinois could look to Europe for safe and affordable prescription drugs.
The Illinois delegation met with representatives from governments, pharmacies, wholesalers, parallel importers, health and insurance funds, and professional and trade associations in Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. They methodically assessed pharmacy practices, manufacturing practices, warehousing and storage, and distribution and dispensing processes and compared them with Illinois standards and practices. The delegation concluded that Illinois could establish a network of foreign pharmacies that would meet state standards and provide safe medications at much lower prices.
Today the Governor released the report of the European study, the findings of which closely mirror those of the Canadian study. The experts found that Illinois consumers could save money by buying their medications from European pharmacies, and could obtain safe prescription drugs equivalent in every way to the medications they purchase in the U.S.
“And so today, I am announcing that Illinois will become the first state in the nation to give its citizens the opportunity to purchase prescription drugs from Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. That means that the 12.6 million people who live in Illinois will now have the opportunity to save hundreds, and in some cases thousands of dollars, on the high cost of their prescription drugs. We can't keep asking people to spend more money than they have just to afford the medicine they need,” the Governor said.
“Today once again the State of Illinois is leading the nation in an effort to provide life saving medications at affordable prices to citizens in Illinois as well as saving taxpayers millions of dollars. It is time for the Senate to follow the State of Illinois and the House of Representatives and pass legislation that an overwhelming majority of Americans support. Governor Blagojevich and the State of Illinois are joining the other states and municipalities in a growing movement while Washington sits on the sidelines,” said Congressman Rahm Emanuel.
The new program will connect users to a Canadian clearinghouse through the internet or a toll-free telephone number, providing country-by-country information on the prices and availability of approximately 100 of the most common brand-name medications used to treat chronic or long-term conditions, and enabling Illinois consumers to order their drugs from the country of their choice for 25 to 50 percent less than the U.S. retail price. If all Illinois residents used the program to purchase medications available through the website, total projected savings could reach $1.9 billion in the first year.
The Illinois import program will build-in numerous safety measures to ensure the quality and safety of drugs dispensed. The list of available drugs will be limited to those that are used for long periods of time, and that cannot be spoiled during the shipping process. Consumers will be able to order eligible drugs for re-fill only, so patients and their doctors have had time to review for unanticipated side-effects or interactions.
For new enrollees, the U.S. doctors can fax or patients can mail in an original prescription to the clearinghouse where it will be reviewed for appropriateness, and then turned over to a program physician for review. If the program physician approves, he or she will re-write the prescription and submit it to a network pharmacy. The pharmacy will perform a final safety check to comply with local laws and regulations before dispensing the medication. For pre-enrolled patients, the medication will be delivered within two weeks of the day the prescription and order are received by the pharmacy.
All medications will come from the PBM’s network of state inspected and approved providers in Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. The Illinois Department of Public Health and the Department of Professional Regulation will work with the PBM to inspect all network pharmacies to ensure they meet the state’s pharmaceutical safety standards.
In its initial rollout, the import program will be targeted at the estimated 23 percent of the state’s population, including 500,000 senior citizens, who lack prescription drug coverage and are forced to pay the highest drug prices in the world. In the second phase, the state will waive co-payments for members of its employee and retiree health plans who purchase their medications through the website, saving the state up to $50 million. In the final phase, up to twelve months after the initial launch, the import plan will be expanded to include other state programs like the Circuit Breaker Pharmaceutical Assistance program, as well as small businesses that don’t offer prescription coverage to their employees.
Last fall, the Governor sent a team of experts to Canada to study the impact of importing prescription drugs from that country. The group reported that importing prescription drugs from Canada is not only safe, but in some cases, even safer than purchasing prescription drugs here in the United States. The Governor and his experts then traveled to Washington, D.C. to share the results of their study with other experts and leaders around the country, and met with members of Congress and officials from the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services.
In December, Congressman Rahm Emanuel (D-Chicago) joined Governor Blagojevich in asking the federal government for a special waiver to launch a pilot program to import prescription drugs from Canada. After weeks of waiting for a response, the Governor helped organize a class action lawsuit to give senior citizens across the nation, the same opportunities that senior citizens in states that border Canada have to purchase cheaper prescription drugs.
“And as we've done all of this over the past year, the reality is the cost of prescription drugs in the United States has not gone down but instead has actually gone up. In fact, because of the current policies of the federal government, we are going in the wrong direction on the issue of prescription drugs,” said Blagojevich.
Last year, the prices of the thirty prescription drugs used most by senior citizens rose more than four times faster than the rate of inflation, according to Families USA. And as seniors in droves turned to Canada for better prices, at lease five major drug makers began to limit supplies to Canadian pharmacies that served Americans.
The drug-makers actions made it clear that Canada could not be the sole supplier for an Illinois drug import program, prompting Gov. Blagojevich to expand his review of foreign pharmaceutical systems.
At the end of January, the state of Minnesota launched a website that connects consumers to two Canadian pharmacies that were approved by state inspectors. Wisconsin, New Hampshire and North Dakota have since established similar sites.
Despite its public opposition to prescription drug importation, the FDA has not taken action against any of the states.
Illinois’ program will go a step further by including approved European pharmacies in the network, and by providing ongoing state oversight of the network wholesalers and pharmacies.
The new Illinois website and toll-free service will be operational within a month.