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Saving Seniors Sidetracked?

David Englin’s ongoing battle for Virginia to join I-SaveRx.

While he was campaigning for a seat in the House of Delegates last year, Del. David Englin (D-45) focused his health-care efforts on a little-known program that allows consumers to purchase reimported drugs from Canada. Called “I-SaveRx,” the program was created in Illinois to allow American consumers to take advantage of Canada’s low-priced pharmaceuticals. In candidate forums and in one-on-one meetings with voters, candidate Englin talked about how I-SaveRx could help low-income seniors afford expensive prescription medication.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” Englin said at one candidate forum last year.

When he arrived in Richmond as a freshman legislator, Englin made a point of putting I-SaveRx at the top of his agenda. It was the first bill he filed in the House of Delegates, a symbolically important position as a number-one priority. Titled “House Bill 388,” Englin’s measure would require Virginia’s Secretary of Health and Human Resources “to enter into discussions with the states that are participating in the I-SaveRx prescription drug program.”

During his orientation session, he learned that Del. Bill Carrico (R-5) had a similar bill. Englin was excited about the possibility of a bipartisan victory on one of his key campaign issues, so he incorporated his bill into Carrico’s bill — with the hope that a Republican legislator might have more luck getting the bill through the committee process.

But Englin and Carrico knew it was going to be an uphill battle. The bill was not headed for the Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee, to which Englin had recently been appointed. Instead it had been assigned to the Rules Committee, which was chaired by Speaker of the House William Howell (R-28) — a known opponent to the idea of reimportation.

“That raised red flags,” Englin said. “Part of the purpose of the Rules Committee is to kill things that the speaker is opposed to.”

On Jan. 25, the Rules Committee met in the Speaker’s Conference Room on the sixth floor of the General Assembly Building. Englin stood next to Carrico, who testified for the bill. With little fanfare and no recorded vote, the Rules Committee voted to “pass by indefinitely” — essentially killing the possibility that Englin would be able to deliver on his campaign promise. Unless he could find another way. And then, another way practically fell out of the sky.

SIX DAYS LATER, Gov. Tim Kaine delivered the Democratic response to President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address. Although the media coverage of the speech focused on the governor’s eyebrows, Kaine made a little-noticed surprise endorsement of the I-SaveRx program.

“Many states, following the lead of Illinois, have set up simple ways to help seniors purchase safe, American-made prescription drugs from other countries at a fraction of the price they would pay here,” Kaine said in the televised speech. “And the administration actually fought against that Democratic effort.”

The governor’s unexpected remark during the high-profile speech threw a lifeline to Englin’s signature health-care issue. Soon afterward, he approached the governor’s office about the possibility of instituting the I-SaveRx program through executive order. Although the governor’s staff members seemed receptive, they soon became bogged down in an extended fight about budget issues and transportation funding.

“We’ve got time,” said Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Gov. Kaine, this week. “The governor is supportive of any action that will allow safe, affordable access to prescription drugs.”

THE I-SAVE-RX program was developed by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2004 to allow consumers to purchase prescription refills from licensed pharmacies in Canada and the United Kingdom. Medications are purchased from retailers or wholesalers in Canada, Ireland or the United Kingdom. The program is now available to residents of Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota and Vermont.

Proponents of the program sell the plan as a way to let more Americans benefit from foreign drug prices. Millions of Americans already buy their prescription drugs in Canada, where they are up to 50 percent cheaper because of price controls. According to Speaker Howell, this is part of the problem with the program.

“If anyone studies Economics 101, they know that you can’t import drugs from a country that has artificially low prices,” Howell said this week during a break in budget negotiations. “It just won’t work.”

Speaker Howell also said that he doesn’t think that reimported drugs are safe. Even if they are inspected in Illinois — as they would be under Englin’s proposal — Howell said that he would be suspicious of their safety.

“How thorough are the inspectors in Illinois?” he asked. “How do we know if they are safe or not? We don’t.”

THE QUESTION OF SAFETY is still being hotly debated in Richmond. Although Howell says that no controls exist to ensure safety, Englin says that Illinois inspectors guarantee the integrity of the supply chain. He says that questioning the integrity of these drugs would be the equivalent of doubting the safety of prescriptions that are available at any corner pharmacy here in Alexandria. He said that the drugs in the program are made in America, imported to Canada, reimported back to America and then inspected in Illlinois before being distributed through the I-SaveRx program.

“Look at the rate of problems,” Englin said. “You don’t have them.”

But Howell remains a vocal opponent of the program, unconvinced of its safety and critical of its advocates.

“It’s a plan that people support to pander to the elderly,” Howell said. “David Englin is a bright guy, and he knows better.”

Englin remains undeterred — and he thinks that he will still be able to deliver on one of his signal campaign issues. Although the possibility of getting the measure through the Republican-controlled House of Delegates is remote, Englin is now looking toward the governor’s office for executive action. He says that Kaine’s mention of the program in his State of the Union response is a good sign that he may act on the program when the time is right.

“This governor has a backbone, and you can see it in the way that he’s refused to back down on the transportation issue,” Englin said. “I’m hopeful that something is going to happen this summer.”