Canadian drugs for elderly fought by NY pharmacists

May 1, 2009

The New York Senate is considering a bill to permit qualifying seniors to obtain their prescription medications from a Canadian pharmacy group. New York pharmacists oppose any plan to take pharmacy dollars out of the state.

Key Points

New York pharmacists will continue fighting a proposal to allow the elderly in a government health insurance aid program to order their prescriptions from Canadian mail-order companies.

State legislator Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr. (D-Bronx) this year introduced a bill in the New York Senate to allow seniors who qualify for the Elderly Pharmaceutical Insurance Coverage Program (EPIC) to elect to sign a contract with CanaRx Services to purchase their prescription drugs. Pharmacy manager CanaRX contracts with around 100 pharmacies in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and other countries.

The Pharmacists Society of the State of New York (PSSNY) "strongly opposes" the legislation and will continue to fight similar efforts that take money for the state pharmacy industry out of the state. In addition, pharmacists are concerned about patient safety.

Polypharmacy, already a significant problem among patients, will be made worse by patients who don't explain to their pharmacists that they are getting their medications from Canada. In some cases, the drugs they receive look different from those manufactured in the United States, and this can be confusing to patients, Burridge says.

In addition, according to Burridge, the pharmacy profession in New York needs support. "Sending taxpayer dollars out of the state is annoying us. There were 2,500 layoffs in pharmacy and 185 pharmacies closed last year," Burridge said.

The legislation is necessary, Diaz contends, so senior citizens "will not have to decide whether to buy groceries or fill their prescriptions." Hearings on Senate Bill 1645 were held, but no action was taken as of press time.

According to Burridge, the EPIC program affects only approximately 5,700 elderly members. Most enrollees have Medicare Part D or other drug coverage; they use EPIC to lower their drug costs and pay for Medicare Part D premiums. "Prior to the Medicare Part D program, this could have been a catastrophe, as there were 377,000 participants in that program," Burridge said.

Diaz wants to model the program after a similar Canadian mail-order program that was implemented for government employees in Schenectady County in 2005. The county's cost savings have been "tremendous," according to County Attorney Christopher Gardner. "Discounts of 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent, 60 percent, and more have been achieved on many brand-name drugs, resulting in several million dollars in savings," Gardner said.

CHRISTINE BLANK is a freelance writer in Orlando, Fla.