The governors of Illinois and Wisconsin on Monday launched the first state-sponsored program to help residents buy cheaper prescription drugs from both Europe and Canada-- despite federal laws banning prescription drug importation.
The program, called I-SaveRx, works through a Canada-based clearinghouse and claims it can save residents 25 percent to 50 percent off U.S. retail prices on about 100 prescription medications.
"Now, the nearly 13 million people who live in Illinois and the more than five million people who live in Wisconsin will have the opportunity to save hundreds-- and in some cases even thousands-- of dollars each year on the high cost of their medicine," Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said in a news release announcing the start of the program.
"It means our seniors will no longer have to spend more money than they have just to afford the medicine they need," he said.
By including pharmacies in Ireland and the United Kingdom, I-SaveRx goes beyond programs in other states that direct residents on how to buy prescription drugs from Canada, where drugs are often cheaper because of government price controls.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration opposes such reimporting of prescription drugs, saying can't guarantee the safety of drugs sold through foreign pharmacies. But it hasn't stopped Minnesota or other states from setting up Internet sites to help consumers buy drugs through Canadian pharmacies.
Illinois last year requested federal approval to set up a pilot program for the state to import drugs from Canada for state employees and retirees, but the request was rejected.
Rather than drop the idea, the Blagojevich administration sent teams to Europe to study the safety and feasibility of importing prescription drugs from Ireland and United Kingdom, as well as from Canada. Wisconsin recently joined the effort.
"There's no reason why our citizens should have to pay twice as much for safe prescription medicines as the rest of the world, but that's exactly the situation we're in because the federal government refuses to take on the drug companies," Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle said in a news release. "This initiative gives our citizens another option."
The FDA had no immediate comment on the move Monday.
Illinois, which created the I-SaveRx program, will not import the drugs itself. Instead, it has contracted with a Canadian company to connect residents with 45 foreign pharmacies and wholesalers that have been approved by Illinois health inspectors and verified by Wisconsin.
Under the program, consumers can go to an Internet site or call a telephone number to be linked to the Canadian clearinghouse administered by CanaRx, a pharmaceutical benefits manager that operates a network of online pharmacies. That clearinghouse will provide information on the costs in Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom of about 100 of the most common brand-name drugs used to treat chronic or long-term conditions.
Most generic drugs, narcotics or drugs that can spoil during shipping will be excluded from the program, and only refills are allowed.
Consumers must mail or have their doctor fax a completed health profile form and signed prescription to the clearinghouse, which will conduct an initial scan for appropriateness using the same drug interaction software used in Illinois pharmacies.
If the prescription passes the interaction test, it will be given to a network physician in the country from which the medication will be dispensed. That physician will review and rewrite the prescription for a local network pharmacy.
The pharmacy will perform a final safety check to comply with local laws and regulations before dispensing the medication.
"AARP is keenly aware that millions of our members are now engaged in importation of prescription drugs from abroad. The argument over safety concerns only makes more imperative the need to monitor this activity and establish procedures and protocol," said Ralph Yaniz, AARP Illinois state director. "Governor Blagojevich's importation initiative, along with currently available programs, will give older Illinoisans some relief from the high costs of prescription drugs."
On the Net or by telephone:
I-SaveRx prescription drug importation program: www.I-SaveRx.net
The program also can be accessed by calling 1-866-ISAVE33.