Saturday, July 31, 2004; Page A22
THE MONTGOMERY County Council is well within its rights to debate, as it recently did, whether to begin purchasing prescription drugs from Canada. The county says it could save $6 million to $10 million every year by giving its employees and retirees the choice of filling their long-term prescriptions through county-certified Canadian online pharmacies. Because prices in Canada are so much lower, the county could also eliminate co-payments for those who avail themselves of the service, saving millions for county residents as well. A similar program has recently been launched in Boston and a host of other cities and states. It's no surprise that the Montgomery council wants to try it too, and council members have made enormous, laudable efforts to find safe and legal ways to do so.
But unfortunately, there aren't any. At least until Congress says otherwise, importing drugs remains illegal. And while the Food and Drug Administration has not yet prosecuted anyone for doing so, FDA lawyers say they reserve that right. While acknowledging that the issues are not easy and pointing out that any FDA legal action could be challenged with powerful arguments, the county attorney cautioned the council that criminal liability under federal law "creates the greatest hurdle" to the proposed importation plan.
While it sounds reasonable to say that there should be no medical reason not to purchase drugs in Canada, where safety standards are just as high as they are in this country, it is also impossible for the county to guarantee that this will remain the case. Last year The Post published a series of articles revealing the extent of the multibillion-dollar counterfeit drug market and the dysfunction of the regulatory system in place at the borders. That too should force Montgomery County to pause before legitimizing a new wave of imports.
We sympathize with the council's dilemma. We have said that the maintenance of dramatically lower prices in the rest of the world is unsustainable in the long run. It not only is politically untenable, it unfairly forces Americans to subsidize the drug consumption of the entire planet. The council should look hard at other methods of reducing the county's drug costs, including some of the methods in the District's recent AccessRx legislation -- collective bargaining, pressure on pharmaceutical benefit managers -- and lobby Maryland's congressional delegation to work harder to come up with alternatives.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company