First-in-nation law allows one state to import drugs—for now

Big Rx companies take issue with Maine's new rules

A first-of-its-kind law in Maine now allows residents to directly purchase mail-order drugs from foreign pharmacies, but the move has ignited a court battle with the pharmaceutical industry, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Despite FDA prohibition, Maine companies import drugs

Although FDA prohibits importing medication from other countries, the agency rarely enforces the ban among consumers, and U.S. residents have been crossing the Canadian border since the 1950s to purchase lower-cost medications.

In Maine, some companies and municipalities have established drug plans with foreign companies.

The practice has saved the state's largest city—Portland—$3.2 million in employee health costs from 2004 to 2012, according to Portland Mayor Michael Brennan. Using CanaRx, the city pays $200.90 with no copay for a 90-day supply of the heartburn drug Nexium. For the same order from a U.S. pharmacy, the city would pay $621.08, with the employee contributing 25% of the cost.

Similarly, the Maine State Employees Association contracted with CanaRx last year. However, the Maine Pharmacy Association vocally opposed it, and then-Attorney General William Schneider halted the importation of drugs in late 2012, saying that it violated state law.

New state law makes drug importations legal

In June, Maine legislators removed the final pharmaceutical barrier between the state and Canada by eliminating the state licensing requirement for accredited pharmacies in Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia. The law went into effect on Wednesday.

State pharmacy groups and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Portland over the importation agreement. In the lawsuit, the groups allege that the practice could expose residents to tainted or counterfeit medication, and that importation could interfere with FDA oversight.

Maine officials say they are confident residents are getting legitimate medication through well-regulated supply chains. Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) said in an interview that it is "not a safety issue" when it comes to the drugmakers lawsuit: "it's turf."

According to Boston University expert Laurence Kotlikoff, other states may follow Maine's example, which "could have a big impact on pharmaceutical companies' long-term profits and desire to invent new medications." More than a dozen states have explored importing medications, but a Medicare prescription-drug benefit implemented in 2006 stemmed those efforts.

In addition, Kotlikoff noted that the new competition could also bring some drugmakers "back in line" (Levitz/Martin, Wall Street Journal, 10/9).

Next in the Daily Briefing

Why asking workers to work through lunch is a bad idea

Read now