AUGUSTA – The Penobscot Indian Nation and Maine labor unions said Monday they are teaming up with a senior citizens’ group to advocate for the importation of cheaper prescription drugs so more Mainers can afford them.
The thrust of the coalition’s effort will be to address a key concern of opponents of government-sanctioned importation from Canada and other western nations: that drugs consumed by Americans are safe. Opponents worry that importation opens the door to counterfeit, overage and other substandard drugs.
Drug importation advocates held a news conference at the Chateau Cushnoc, a housing complex for the elderly and disabled. The coalition partners include the Maine Council of Senior Citizens along with the Penobscots and Maine AFL-CIO.
John Carr, president of the MCSC, said the new coalition envisions an importation program in which medicines would be shipped to the Penobscot Indian Reservation in Old Town and distributed from there.
Carr says the model program could prove that imported drugs are safe, or expose instances where they are less than safe. In the latter instance, an importation program could be improved to ensure drug safety.
Congress has passed drug importation bills twice, but in both cases said the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services would first have to certify that the drugs would be safe.
Neither Donna Shalala, who served under former President Clinton, nor Tommy Thompson, who holds office under President Bush, has been willing to do so.
In July, the U.S. House approved legislation ordering HHS to set up a system to allow importation of Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs from industrialized nations. The Bush administration, which labeled the measure “dangerous,” and pharmaceutical industry opposed the bill.
A separate bill has been OK’d by the Senate, but senators have warned that a bill that does not include HHS safety oversight will not pass.
In Maine, the new drug coalition is pushing on a second front for importation. It wants HHS Secretary Thompson to approve a grant for research addressing drug-safety concerns, Carr said.
In the absence of an importation law, Mainers and other people living near the border have been traveling by the busload to Canada to pick up their prescriptions for a fraction of their cost in the United States.
With financial help from its national affiliate Alliance for Retired Americans, the Maine Council of Senior Citizens has organized a series of bus trips from Maine communities to Canada.
“To think that the most vulnerable in our society must travel to another country to purchase their lifesaving medications because otherwise they cannot afford to buy food is a chilling testimony and it must stop,” said Carr, who was joined at the news conference by Maine AFL-CIO President Edward Gorham and Penobscot Chief Barry Dana.