Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) announced a new program Thursday that will allow state employees to obtain certain prescription drugs free if they order the medication from a state-inspected Canadian pharmacy.

The program applies to 45 of the most popular name-brand medicines that do not have generic alternatives. State officials estimate savings of $1.4 million a year because the drugs can be bought for less in Canada.

About 120,000 employees and their dependents would be eligible. The state would cover shipping fees, along with the $15 monthly co-payments that are required for each prescription if workers buy their drugs from U.S. pharmacists.

Pawlenty cautioned that the program carries risks, explaining he hoped it would not invite a government crackdown on drug imports.

But he said state experts believe federal guidelines generally prevent the government from punishing people who import medications for their own use.

Federal law forbids the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, where brand-name medicines can cost half the price because of tighter government controls. The government argues that it cannot ensure the safety of drugs imported into the United States.

Officials expect about 3,000 people to use the program its first year.