Blagojevich told reporters the recently passed Medicare bill includes a provision that allows Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson to give Illinois permission to buy drugs from Canada for its 230,000 state employees and retirees.
Monday’s announcement came after New Hampshire and Boston announced that they plan to buy prescription drugs from Canada as a way to cut costs even though it is illegal. Springfield, Mass., is already allowing its employees to save money by buying drugs from Canada despite laws prohibiting it.
Blagojevich, by contrast, is taking a different tack and told reporters he is “cautiously optimistic” that the state will get a waiver allowing it to start the program with Washington’s approval.
It remains unclear whether the governor’s efforts will succeed.
Bill Pierce, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, told the Associated Press that previous laws have included language similar to the wording of the new Medicare bill, but Thompson and Donna Shalala, his predecessor, were never able to guarantee the safety of reimported drugs.
“Nothing changes,” Pierce told the AP. “The bottom line is, twice there have been similar laws to allow reimported drugs but only if they have been certified as safe. Donna Shalala and Secretary Thompson have said they could not do that. That’s the key part.”
Responding to statements made by the HHS press office, Blagojevich told reporters he could not believe that HHS would reject his request before hearing the proposal’s specifics.
To alleviate concerns about the possible dangers importing drugs from Canada, the Democratic governor announced several safeguards included in his plan.
Blagojevich said Illinois would work with the Food and Drug Administration to develop a list of drugs that could be bought from Canada. Also, only pharmacies licensed by Canadian officials could participate in the plan.
The program would also be voluntary and savings would be passed along to those who chose to participate, the Illinois governor explained. Those participating would be required to have all prescriptions filled initially by an Illinois pharmacist, but could then could buy refills from Canada.
Blagojevich said the state might sue if the federal government does not grant the waiver.
“My preference is to avoid lawsuits,” Blagojevich said. “I’m not ruling that out as a possibility.”
Illinois spent $340 million on prescription drugs for its employees and retirees last fiscal year, a 15 percent increase from the previous year.
Blagojevich commissioned a report earlier this year that found Illinois would save as much as $91 million if state employees and retirees bought drugs from Canada. Brand-name drugs are often cheaper in Canada because of government price controls.
The FDA criticized that report for overestimating savings that would be derived from the program and incorrectly assuming Canadian health authorities can guarantee the safety of drugs sent to the United States.