Low Demand, Mismanagement Plague I-SaveRx

Published September 1, 2005

The State of Illinois’ drug importation program, I-SaveRx, expanded its supplier list of countries offering prescription medications by adding Australia and New Zealand in July. The move was made shortly after Canadian Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh announced new regulations on prescription medicine exports, saying his country would no longer be a cheap “drug store for the United States.”

The Illinois program also imports drugs from Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) said in a news release that Illinois deems the pharmaceutical systems in Australia and New Zealand to be safe. He estimated the two countries could provide savings of about 51 percent for Illinois consumers and those in Kansas, Missouri, Vermont, and Wisconsin, which also participate in the I-SaveRx program.

Demand Low for Imports

According to the governor’s office, Australian authorities and pharmacy regulators expressed no concerns about Australian pharmacies filling prescriptions through I-SaveRx. In New Zealand, however, the law is unclear about a physician’s authority to write a prescription for a patient he or she has not examined, the governor said. For that reason, only prescription medications that are available over the counter in New Zealand will be available through I-SaveRx.

“By adding more countries to the list of ‘approved nations,'” said Merrill Matthews, director of the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, “the governor has completely undermined his original argument: that imported drugs will be safe because the state of Illinois will strictly monitor a small number of selected vendors. This is one of those cases where more is less. And apparently the public recognizes that and is running the other way.”

In the five participating I-SaveRx states, some 27 million people are eligible to participate in the program. Since the program’s launch in October 2004, it has filled fewer than 11,000 prescription drug orders.

Flu Vaccines Stalled, Spoiled

Meanwhile, Blagojevich was facing a surplus of drugs that had become useless, after ordering more than 610,000 doses of flu vaccine from a British supplier last fall. The shots were to have gone to Illinois residents as well as patients in Cleveland, New Mexico, and New York City. The Food and Drug Administration would not approve the importation of the vaccines, and the drugs expired in August.

The FDA said it could not guarantee the safety of the shots. Blagojevich had placed the order “even though the transaction would have violated federal laws banning their importation,” noted Joseph Bast, president of The Heartland Institute.

The waste is expected to cost Illinois taxpayers about $2.5 million. Ecosse Hospital Products, Ltd., the British supplier from which the vaccines were purchased, filed a lawsuit against the state in March, demanding payment.

State Refuses to Pay

The state attempted tried to sell the vaccine but could not find a buyer. Efforts to donate or sell the doses to countries in the Southern Hemisphere, which are in winter now and facing flu season, also failed.

State Comptroller Dan Hynes (D) has refused to pay for the vaccines, arguing the FDA’s withholding of approval should allow the state to cancel its contract. He cited a provision that allows contract termination for “unforeseeable circumstances beyond its reasonable control, including … governmental regulation.”

Officials said the state would continue to seek to offer the drugs to South Africa for vaccination of AIDS patients. Though expired, the vaccines are believed to remain potent.

Susan Konig ([email protected]) is managing editor of Health Care News.