National Symposium on Drug Importation: Introduction

Published November 21, 2003

The National Symposium on Drug Importation took place in Chicago on October 23, 2003. Eight speakers from Canada and the United States presented every side of the debate over the course of a half-day program. Their presentations were transcribed and are presented in this booklet.

The five experts on drug importation from leading think tanks who agreed to come to Chicago to speak were Stephen Entin, president of the Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation; Robert Goldberg, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute; John R. Graham, director of health and pharmaceutical policy research at the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, Canada; and Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute.

Also invited were 26 people from government and leading business groups, including 12 from Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s office, to participate. Four of them said yes: Sean Heather, executive director of Congressional public affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Senator Chris Lauzen, who represents the 25th Senate District in Illinois; David Miller, president of the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization; and Senator Steve Rauschenberger, who represents Illinois’ 22nd Senate District.

Approximately 80 people attended the symposium over the course of the day, including state legislators, pharmacists, small business owners, lobbyists, the president of a drug importation business, and at least one member of Gov. Blagojevich’s staff. Lively question and answer sessions followed each of three panels.

About the Issue

Drug importation is getting national attention. During the week of the symposium, the Washington Post ran a series on the subject. The first article in the series was titled “U.S. Prescription Drug System Under Attack,” and it begins with the following warning:

For half a century, Americans could boast of the world’s safest, most tightly regulated system for distributing prescription drugs. But now that system is under-cut by a growing illegal trade in pharmaceuticals fed by chemical profiteers, unscrupulous wholesalers, rogue Internet sites and foreign pharmacies.

The State of Illinois is interested in drug importation because it spends a lot of money on prescription drugs: about $340 million a year on its own employees and its retirees and approximately $1.5 billion each year on Medicaid, for a total of $1.8 billion a year. So, under the direction of Gov. Blagojevich, the state is looking for ways to reduce its spending on prescription drugs. One way under consideration is to import less-expensive drugs from Canada and other countries.

The governor named two special advocates to study the issue. Their study was scheduled to be released on October 20, and Heartland’s National Symposium was scheduled to respond to their findings. Unfortunately, the study’s release was delayed until shortly after the conference. While the study strongly endorses importation, and the governor has cited it in defense of his proposal, the study itself fails to contradict or does not address the objections raised by importation opponents who spoke at the symposium. Two appendices at the end of this book—one written by me and the other by William K. Hubbard, associate commissioner for policy and planning for the Food and Drug Administration—comment specifically on the governor’s report.

About The Heartland Institute

The Heartland Institute has been addressing health care issues since 1993, when I had the opportunity to coauthor a book titled Why We Spend Too Much on Health Care with Dr. Stuart Wesbury and Richard Rue—a book still worth reading, I might add, despite changes in the debate that have taken place since 1993. We launched Health Care News, Heartland’s monthly publication on health care, in March 2001.

The Heartland Institute is a 19-year-old nonprofit organization based in Chicago. Heartland is a national organization that provides quality information on a wide range of topics to the nation’s 8,300 state and national elected officials. It sends all 8,300 elected state and national officials in the U.S. four monthly publications: School Reform News, Environment & Climate News, Health Care News, and Budget & Tax News. Among state legislators, we are the best-known think-tank in the United States: 86 percent recognize us; 60 percent view us as a valuable resource.

Since it often comes up, let me mention quickly how we’re funded. The Heartland Institute has 1,400 donors. No one donor gives more than 5 percent of our annual budget. We do receive funding from the pharmaceutical industry; exactly one gift this year. It arrived in January. It was for $55,000 and it came from Pfizer. It was earmarked for Health Care News and we promptly spent it on the January and February issues of Health Care News.

We did not solicit funding from anybody for this conference; it was funded out of general operating support. So, I’d like to thank the 1,400 donors to The Heartland Institute, many of whom don’t care about this issue, or have contradictory views about this issue, for nevertheless allowing us to spend their money to hold this conference today.

Joseph Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, publisher of Health Care News, and coauthor of Why We Spend Too Much on Health Care. He was the principal organizer of the National Symposium on Drug Importation. His email address is [email protected].