The San Francisco Chronicle
Sacramento — California lawmakers are advancing measures to help consumers and the state buy inexpensive prescription drugs from Canada, virtually assuring that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be drawn into a nationwide debate over the soaring cost of medicine.
The state Assembly approved several drug-related measures on Wednesday, including one that would let California consumers use a state-run Web site to gain access to Canadian drugs. Earlier in the week the Senate voted to direct state government to consider buying drugs for things like prisons and a state-run AIDS program from Canadian pharmacies.
Both ideas face fierce lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry, but it appears likely that some form of prescription drug reform has enough support in the Legislature to make it to Schwarzenegger’s desk.
Despite federal prohibition against buying foreign drugs, lawmakers say rising prices have persuaded them to turn to Canada for savings. Price controls there mean some prescription drugs cost as much as 75 percent less.
“Families are unable to fill prescriptions, they’re skipping drugs, they’re cutting the pills in half, because they can’t afford them,” said Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Los Feliz (Los Angeles County), author of two bills approved Wednesday dealing with Canadian drug re-importation.
Frommer likened the move to the Boston Tea Party, saying the state and consumers should rebel against major drug companies have an average profit margin of 24 percent.
California joins a growing list of cities and states looking to Canada to combat high drug prices. States like Wisconsin and Minnesota already run Web sites that help consumers shop for Canadian drugs. Illinois has tried to set up a bulk-purchasing program, and nearly every state Legislature in the country is considering the issue.
Democrat-sponsored legislation in Sacramento has run into some Republican protest, but both of Frommer’s bills – which are the most controversial of five prescription drug measures approved Wednesday – did receive a few GOP votes.
Drug companies have several arguments against shipping business to Canada. They say it will cost them money that could go to researching new drugs and that Canada does not have a as many safeguards as the United States to ensure consumers get the medications they need.
Several Republicans noted Wednesday that the state would essentially be encouraging California consumers to break federal law, but Frommer noted the federal government has yet to prosecute anyone or shut other states’ Web sites.
The vote Wednesday in the Assembly, where drug-industry lobbyists concentrated their efforts, is a strong indicator that Schwarzenegger will have to decide this year.
So far the governor has not indicated his position, although staffers have studied the legislation and spokeswoman Ashley Snee said Schwarzenegger is very concerned about the rising cost of prescription drugs.
How Schwarzenegger reacts will be closely watched by consumer groups which have criticized the governor for taking millions in campaign contributions from major corporations, including the pharmaceutical industry.
The governor has collected more than $325,000 from drug companies, according to research by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
The group has attacked the governor for vowing not to take money from special interests like labor unions that have direct business with the state, but engaging in record-setting fund-raising tapping into companies they contend are also affected by political decisions.
The foundation called Wednesday for Schwarzenegger to either pledge support for the prescription drug bills or return the contributions.
Snee, however, said all money given to the governor was “irrelevant when it comes to decisions he makes.”
Which of several drug bills go to Schwarzenegger remains to be seen. The Senate and Assembly passed several bills this week that are similar, and Democratic lawmakers will have to sort out which bills will move through the remaining house.
Frommer’s AB 1957 calls for the state Department of Health Services to develop a Web site that would include a comparison of Canadian and U.S. prices of the 50 most commonly-prescribed drugs. The site would also list links to Canadian pharmacies that have been approved by the Canadian version of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, and Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, are carrying measures, SB1144 and SB1333, that would require the state to consider buying drugs in Canada. Both were approved by the Senate on Tuesday.
Other reforms the Assembly passed Wednesday included allowing for more bulk purchasing of drugs and requiring a state-issued report card on effectiveness and cost of various prescription drugs.
E-mail Mark Martin at [email protected]