District officials, in an effort to offer residents access to cheaper prescription drugs, have placed a link on the city Web site to a guide for ordering drugs from Canadian pharmacies.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials said yesterday that such purchases violate federal law. The agency plans to discuss the Web site link and federal regulations with Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).
"The drugs are illegal, and we are also concerned that the drugs are unsafe," said William K. Hubbard, FDA associate commissioner for policy and planning.
The Web site, www.dc.gov, contains a link to Minnesota RxConnect, a state Web site that gives directions on how to purchase drugs from Canada. The District's link was first reported by the Washington Times.
City Administrator Robert C. Bobb said he approved the link to give residents more options.
"I think the Web site has enough disclaimers on it so that we are not violating federal law," Bobb said. "If the [inspector general] or someone else says that we are violating federal law, then we'll shut the Web site down. But we haven't heard that yet."
The link drops the District squarely into the national controversy about whether governments should help residents obtain prescription drugs from Canada. In Maryland, Montgomery County officials eager to cut county drug costs and help elderly citizens were told by the FDA this year they could not set up such a program. Meanwhile, in Springfield, Mass., and Montgomery, Ala., residents can buy drugs from Canada with government help, to the chagrin of federal officials.
In the District, council member David A. Catania (R-At Large) said he approached the city's chief technology officer, Suzanne J. Peck, several months ago about putting a link on the city Web site that includes step-by-step ordering information and a disclaimer that the FDA considers the purchase of drugs from Canada to be illegal.
The Minnesota link appears next to a link to AccessRx, a new District program that requires drug companies to sell medication to the District at discount rates and to disclose data on pricing, marketing and contracting. The city plans to sell the discounted drugs to low-income, elderly and uninsured residents.
Catania, who sponsored the legislation that created AccessRx, said the link to the Minnesota Web site gives the District's most vulnerable residents access to lower-cost drugs. He said that he had not heard from federal officials and that the city would maintain the Web site link.
Meanwhile, AccessRx is on hold because the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, the national trade group for pharmacy benefit management companies, has filed a lawsuit over the disclosure of financial arrangements.
The lawsuit could be resolved within the next few months, said Gina Lagomarsino, senior policy advisor in the office of the city administrator. The city spends about $150 million annually on prescription drugs. About 9 percent of the District's population is uninsured, Lagomarsino said.
Sharon Baskerville, executive director of the DC Primary Care Association, a health care advocacy group for low-income residents, said she is surprised that the District seemed to be advocating the Canadian drug route and is concerned about citizens having enough information.
"I worry about the community being stuck in a swirl of confusion without people to point them in the right direction," Baskerville said.