AUGUSTA — Public and private employers urged lawmakers Wednesday to approve the operation of a Canadian mail-order firm that saved workers and employers millions of dollars on prescription drugs before it was shut down by state regulators last year.

The major arguments for and against the bill, heard by the Legislature’s Labor Committee, boiled down to price versus the safety of buying drugs sight unseen through international avenues.

Officials in state government, the city of Portland and a Guilford wood products company said they collectively saved more than $6 million and had no quality problems buying through CanaRx.

The drug broker said its brand-name drugs come from well-regulated pharmacies in countries that negotiate rates with drug companies, unlike what the United States does. That’s why it can pass savings — often 50 percent or more on certain types of drugs — along to American consumers.

However, Maine pharmacists said consumers can’t be sure of the safety of products obtained from mail-order sources, and that state pharmacies are at a competitive disadvantage against unregulated international brokers.

While CanaRx says its drugs come from pharmacies from countries with standards as stringent or more stringent than the United States, the federal Food and Drug Administration recommends obtaining drugs only from legal sources within the United States, because of unknowns in the sourcing or manufacturing processes.

“With unregulated drugs from any mail-order facility in the world, it is what we don’t know that scares me and should scare you,” said Robert Morrissette, director of continuing education at the University of New England College of Pharmacy.

L.D. 449, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley, would affirm the right of Maine consumers to buy prescription drugs through certain international mail-order companies.

He introduced the bill in response to a August 2012 ruling by former Attorney General William Schneider that CanaRx couldn’t operate in Maine because it couldn’t be licensed by the state. The company obtains drugs from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

Schneider’s ruling made strange political bedfellows: Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine State Employees Association, the largest union representing state employees. The two parties agree on little, but both expressed disappointment at Schneider’s action.

MSEA President Ginette Rivard was among those who testified Wednesday.

“Yesterday, I picked up a … brand-name prescription at the local pharmacy. I paid $45 and my plan was charged $780,” said Rivard. “Under CanaRx, that same prescription would cost $210. That’s pretty easy math.”

The bill’s opponents included PhRMA, which represents AstraZeneca, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer — all major pharmaceutical companies.

Chris Collins, senior program adviser for CanaRx, testified that in April 2012, the Maine Division of Employee Health and Benefits contracted with CanaRx for some drug services, saving $1.2 million in four months for 819 state employees before the program was suspended.

If the program had been allowed to continue, Collins said, CanaRx projected it would have saved the state $6 million in a year.

“This was the most successful launch of a new program in the history of CanaRx,” Collins said.

Schneider’s decision affected about 1,200 Maine households — most of them state employees, along with Portland city employees and workers at Guilford-based Hardwood Products Co. All three testified for the bill.

In written testimony, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said the city had contracted with CanaRx to provide prescription drugs to city employees from 2004 until the program’s suspension last year.

Over the course of the Portland program, almost 17,000 prescriptions were filled, saving the city $3.2 million in reduced costs and waived co-pays, according to the mayor’s written testimony.

“Maine businesses and municipalities need to be able to pursue and utilize programs that will help reduce health insurance and coverage costs,” Brennan said. “L.D. 449 is a reasonable fix that would allow Portland to resume its program and save both the (taxpayer) and our employees money.”

Scott Wellman, chief financial officer for Hardwood Products, said his company saved $638,000 over six years with CanaRx, and it will pay $150,000 in co-pays this year they wouldn’t have paid if they were allowed to keep using it.

“That’s going to come out of the economy in Piscataquis County,” he said.

The Maine Merchants Association — now called the Retail Association of Maine — whose members include retail pharmacies, flagged CanaRx’s operation in Maine to state regulators, prompting the state Board of Pharmacy to send a letter to Schneider.

Michael Shepherd — 620-7015
[email protected]
Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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