Unfortunately, a Maine state law that was created to help people access lower cost medication from licensed pharmacies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, was invalidated yesterday in a decision by federal court Judge Nancy Torresen. Basically the judge, invoking a legal doctrine called “preemption,” concluded that federal law beats state law when it comes to foreign commerce, and since federal law technically bans personal drug importation under most circumstances, Maine’s law is trumped. I’ll return at the end to deal with a little legalese fun (but not too much!).
Taking a walk down memory lane here: personal drug importation programs in Maine, such as one operated for the City of Portland, Portland Meds since 2004, which has helped Americans save many millions of dollars, were shut down in 2012 by former State Attorney General William Schneider. The programs were shut down because Maine’s pharmacy groups persuaded AG Schneider that Canadian and all foreign pharmacies should be stopped from mail order pharmacy sales into Maine because they are not licensed in Maine. Most U.S. states require pharmacies based elsewhere to obtain an out-of-state pharmacy license if they want to sell medication by mail to their residents. While there are exceptions, most states do not allow pharmacies in other countries to obtain an out-of-state license.
Maine legislators were angered by this action and passed a law, LD 171 “An Act To Facilitate the Personal Importation of Prescription Drugs from International Mail Order Prescription Pharmacies,” that exempted licensed pharmacies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK from having to obtain an out-of-state Maine pharmacy license. Not only was this law passed on a bi-partisan basis but the vote was overwhelming: Maine’s House voted 107-37: the Senate voted 30-4. And with that the personal drug importation programs resumed.
The law was invalidated, now what?
Programs like Portland Meds will not necessarily shutdown. We’ll have to wait and see what happens. But if they do shutdown then thousands of Mainers will be paying more for their medications. More seriously, some Mainers will likely end up skipping their medications because the prices at their local pharmacies are too high for them. Back in 2012, an owner of one company that worked with CanaRx, a Canadian pharmacy benefit company, admitted that by working with licensed foreign pharmacies his company saved money: but there was more to the story than simply a company saving money. Quoting a journalist from the Bangor Daily News:
While acknowledging that Hardwood Products “as a company is trying to save money,” Young said his greatest fear is that a spike in costs will spur his employees to stop taking medications for conditions such as diabetes and asthma.
“We have many people here who are hourly employees,” he said. “We pay a fair wage, but the impact out of the family net income will be significant. More important than the money is the health and well being of the employees and their families. What dollar figure do you put on that?”
…but all hope is not even close to lost! Americans still have access to safe and more affordable medication available online, and, again, Maine’s programs have not yet shut down. Equally as important to the longer term cause of prescription justice, the ruling leaves the door open for the State of Maine to appeal the decision up the legal food chain to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. If Maine wins then other states may follow its lead by passing similar legislation to promote access to lower costs medications from other countries.
I’m pretty certain that, with the requisite political will from Maine’s legislators, citizen rabblerousing, and some good legal marksmanship, there are ways to overcome and defeat Judge Torresen’s ruling.
To conclude, I’d like to challenge something Judge Torresen opined in her ruling to nullify Maine’s foreign pharmacy law:
“Congress enacted the FDCA [Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act] to bolster consumer protection against harmful products.”…In furtherance of this purpose, Congress has created a complex regulatory scheme covering the importation of pharmaceuticals into the United States…
Is that so? Maybe…in part. However, I believe that banning Americans from importing lower cost and safe prescription medication from licensed pharmacies for their own use does nothing to bolster consumer protection against harmful products but quite a lot to bolster protection of big drug company and U.S. chain pharmacy profits. I know that the ban impedes Americans from taking medications they need and forces more financial hardship. Are these facts that could hold up in court? I think so.