February 26, 2004
An elderly Illinois couple is filing suit against the federal government, arguing it is unconstitutional to prevent them from buying life-saving drugs from lower-priced Canadian pharmacies.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, encouraged Ray and Gaylee Andrews to take the action, which seeks class-action status. He is one of several governors and mayors seeking to import Canadian drugs for use in state and municipal health and retirement plans.

Both 74 and still working -- Ray as a clerk at Wal-Mart and Gaylee as a telemarketer -- the Elk Grove Village couple spends about $800 per month on prescriptions.

The complaint, expected to be filed in U.S. District Court in Washington today, asserts that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution by "winking at people who drive across the bridge from Detroit to Windsor, Canada" for medicine while threatening to prosecute people who buy the same drugs through the mail, the Andrews' attorney said.

Blagojevich, who is in Washington this week, has said Illinois could save nearly $91 million a year on its employee and retiree health plan if it could buy Canadian drugs. Peter Pitts, the FDA's associate commissioner for external relations, scoffed at the lawsuit. "Clearly, he understands how to get a headline," he said.

Meanwhile, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson announced plans for a year-long study of the issue. But his selection of Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Mark McClellan, an outspoken critic of importation, to chair the study brought immediate howls of protests.

"It gives new meaning to putting the fox in charge of the chicken house," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.). Dorgan and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have has threatened to stall McClellan's nomination to head the federal Medicare program because of his campaign against drug importation.

The Bush Administration faces a growing rebellion against the drug reimportation restrictions in the new Medicare law. Initially the uprising was limited to handfuls of senior citizens but it has now enlisted mayors and governors desperate to reduce state spending on health.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, unveiled a new Web site -- www.drugsavings.wi.gov -- that claims to help residents find safe but cheaper drugs at Canadian pharmacies that have been checked and approved by the state.

FDA associate commissioner Peter Pitts called the site "well put-together snake oil."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, also endorsed two Canadian mail-order pharmacies after state regulators inspected them.

"The high cost of prescription medicines in the United States is unsustainable, plain and simple," said Pawlenty.