States’ Drug Import Program Draws Little Interest from Public

Published February 1, 2005

After three months of operation, only about 1,900 persons have signed up for the I-SaveRx drug import program, which offers low-cost imported drugs to residents of Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

The program went into operation last October. It is the brainchild of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and Congressman Rahm Emanuel (D-Illinois), who have accused the Bush administration and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of keeping drug prices high by upholding the 18-year-old ban on drug importation.

The I-SaveRx program imports drugs from Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, where government-imposed price controls generally hold down drug prices. The program is administered by a Canada-based clearinghouse with a network of 45 foreign pharmacies and wholesalers. Approximately 100 commonly prescribed drugs are available, for refills only. Customers access the program by calling a toll-free number or downloading enrollment forms from the site.

According to the program’s Web site, the prescription process goes like this: After the patient’s medical forms are approved by the enrollee’s physician, I-SaveRx reviews the forms, prescriptions, and health profile and conducts safety checks for drug interaction and appropriateness. Then I-SaveRx sends prescriptions to a licensed physician for further review. I-SaveRx network pharmacists perform additional safety checks in compliance with local laws before dispensing medication.

I-SaveRx says it inspects and approves all pharmacies participating in the program. Participants are told to expect their refills within 20 days of enrollment.

Illegal, Underutilized, But Expanding

Such drug importation programs are illegal. Officials at the FDA cite safety concerns as the main reason to oppose drug imports. So far, however, the FDA has not shut down I-SaveRx.

Despite the negligible enrollment to date, Blagojevich spokesman Scott McKibbin said officials are considering expanding I-SaveRx. Under consideration: allowing state employees and retirees to participate, encouraging other states to join, and possibly using more countries as sources for the drugs.

“We anticipate that it will build over time, and it has built over time both in the first state and every other state that has joined,” McKibbin told Associated Press reporter Maura Kelly Lannan on December 19, 2004. “At some point, do we have to think about other countries? Potentially.”

McKibbin told Lannan that if Congress were to make it legal for Americans to buy drugs from Canada, the I-SaveRx program would be “the model for what will happen for drug importation. Clearly, we’ve already added three other states. Other states are in discussions with us at this point.” As far as Canadian imports are concerned, however, expanding the program may already be a moot point. (See “Canada Plans to Stop Drug Importation,” page 1.)

Better Programs Available

Illinois officials estimate there are more than two million Illinois residents without prescription drug insurance coverage, but McKibbin could not say how many of them are taking the drugs covered by I-SaveRx.

One reason for the program’s slow start may be that hundreds of public and private programs already help consumers buy prescription drugs more cheaply.

More than 50,000 Illinois residents, for example, have obtained assistance through Rx for Illinois, launched in fall 2004 by more than two dozen drug companies and health care advocacy groups, according to Michael Patton, executive director of the Illinois Pharmacists Association, one of the Rx for Illinois partners.

Rx for Illinois links 275 private and government assistance programs that provide 1,800 frequently prescribed drugs for free or at discounted prices. Rx for Illinois helps determine a person’s eligibility and offers a central clearinghouse for eligible patients to access the free or discounted drugs.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News, a publication of The Heartland Institute, and a contributor to Health Care News.