Kansas isn't ready to provide inexpensive -- but illegal -- prescription drugs from Canada despite a growing movement by other states to do so.
But officials in Topeka said last week they might be willing to enable Kansans to make an end run around federal law by setting up a Web site that would show people how to independently obtain such drugs.
"I think we're considering that," said Bob Day, an adviser helping Gov. Kathleen Sebelius develop a policy to address the high cost of prescription drugs. "We just have to look at how that's set up."
Even without the help of the state, Kansans may already be finding a way around the law. Mary Tritsch, a spokeswoman for Kansas AARP, said that during her trips across the state she'd heard from a number of people who already purchase drugs from Canada.
"If I would talk to a group of 20 people, probably five would already say they're getting their drugs from Canada," Tritsch said. "I don't know how representative that is from all of Kansas."
Lawrence pharmacist Tom Wilcox, owner of Round Corner Drug, warned that imported drugs might not be safe.
"The FDA has no control in these countries," he said. "We lose control of how the drugs are handled."
But Delbert Bradley, a 76-year-old retiree, said Friday at the Lawrence Senior Center that he was ready for Canadian drugs.
"I don't care where they come from as long as they're cheap," said Bradley, who spends $150 a month on prescriptions. "They're too damn high."
Prescription drugs are often less expensive in Canada and other countries because of government price controls. For instance, a three-month supply of Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering drug that costs $214 in the United States can be bought for $144 in Ireland, $158 in the United Kingdom and $162 in Canada, official said.
But importing drugs is illegal, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration consistently has told city and state officials that importing drugs from Canada is illegal and unsafe. The agency, however, has done little to stop governments that set up programs, preferring to send warning letters and hold meetings to stress the risks involved.
"As long as they're coming from Canada, and as long as they're from drugstores that we have some experience with, then we would have a lighter touch probably," acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Lester M. Crawford said in an interview made public last week. "But if it escalates and there are other countries, or if there are some events that occur, that could change overnight."
Other cities, states
Boston is the largest city to offer Canadian drugs as an option; Springfield, Mass., and Montgomery, Ala., have had similar programs for about a year. Vermont has said it would sue the FDA for denying its request to import prescription drugs from Canada.
And last week, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced his state would set up an Internet network within the next month to help Illinois residents buy prescription drugs from Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Other states, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, already have Web sites to help residents buy drugs from Canada, but Illinois is the first to tap in to pharmacies in Europe.
"We have taken every possible step we could think of to convince the FDA, and convince the Congress, and anyone who will listen, that people across Illinois, and across our country, deserve access to safe and lower-cost prescription drugs," Blagojevich said. "The federal government has failed to act. So it's time that we do."
Sebelius campaigned in 2002 on a promise to find a solution to the high cost of prescription drugs. Day, the director of the governor's Office of Health Planning and Finance, said he had been working on a plan to be included in a larger health reform package, though he wouldn't give a timeline for unveiling.
He couldn't quantify the amount Kansans are paying -- or overpaying -- for prescription drugs.
"It's a difficult problem," Day said. "The reason people are touting Canadian drugs is because it seems to be a way at getting lower-priced drugs."
Day was mostly mum on details, but suggested a future proposal would include the following elements:
- A Web site to help Kansans find their own deals on Canadian drugs. Even though importation is illegal, Day said, distributing such information is not.
- Efforts to encourage prescription drug users to choose less expensive generic drugs, when available. "The real cost of drugs right now is in the brand name," Day said.
- Discounts for people with low incomes or no insurance.
The main obstacle: creating a system to inexpensively identify Kansans who would be eligible for discounts.
"At this point, because the state has no money, it's going to have to be a no-cost item or a virtually no-cost program," Day said.
'Big, big savings'
The help would be welcomed.
Janet Ikenberry, community services manager at Douglas County Senior Services, said the cost of prescription drugs could be a "huge" burden for her clients.
"We see people come in on a daily basis, trying to get help," she said. "Some of them are paying several hundred dollars a month for pharmaceuticals, and their income is less than $1,000 a month."
That makes getting drugs elsewhere tantalizing.
Ken Wehmeyer, who was playing pool Friday with Bradley at the senior center, said he picked up prescription drugs during winter trips to Mexico. A purchase of Prozac for a relative would have cost $800 in the United States, he said, but fetches less than $100 outside U.S. borders.
"She flat couldn't afford it," Wehmeyer, 77, said of his relative. "It was a big, big savings."
That's why Wehmeyer plans to keep buying his drugs outside the country.
"I'd rather buy it here," he said. "It's just dollars, is what it amounts to. They ought to taper the prices down here, or allow people to buy Canadian drugs by mail."