By Jonathan Finer Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2004; Page E01
BOSTON -- A biotechnology powerhouse. An importer of prescription drugs from Canada. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino says that his city can be both.
In July, Boston, which rivals San Francisco as the world capital of the biotechnology industry, is set to become the largest and most influential city to make it easier for public employees to buy imported pharmaceuticals. The effort is part of a nationwide movement that its architects say will make medicine more affordable for Americans, who pay among the highest drug prices in the world.
The city's initiative comes as state lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow Massachusetts to seek federal permission for a Web site with links to Canadian Internet pharmacies.
But the proposals have drawn the ire of biotechnology executives. They say importing cheaper drugs will eat into profit and divert funding from fledgling drug companies.
"Some people here seem to think they can have it both ways. Our view is that they can't," said Mark Trusheim, interim president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MBC).
In a nation that demands both cutting-edge medicines and affordable access to them, this city and state are at the center of an emerging tug-of-war between the pursuit of lower drug prices and the desire to remain a hospitable business climate for biotech companies.
Because many drugs sell for 20 to 80 percent less in Canada due largely to government price controls there, several U.S. cities already import drugs for residents or employees. Springfield, Mass., has done so for a year, saving taxpayers $2 million, according to a recent study. Montgomery, Ala., and Burlington, Vt., also have importation programs.
The Food and Drug Administration considers such programs illegal, citing concerns over the safety of drugs manufactured abroad that may not be approved for use in the United States.
A statewide importation plan in Illinois is on hold pending a change in the FDA's stance. But Minnesota and Wisconsin have set up Web sites that guide residents to approved Canadian pharmacies, while Rhode Island's state Web site links to Wisconsin's.
Other cities and states are considering a range of importation proposals; in Maryland, for instance, the Montgomery County Council is considering legislation that would add an option to county government health plans allowing employees to purchase prescription drugs from Canada.