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Menino eyes drug-import plan

Mayor says he'd consider flouting FDA to cut costs

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday that he is looking into buying Canadian prescription drugs for Boston city workers and would "very seriously" consider flouting the Food and Drug Administration ban on imports if it is not lifted.

If Menino plunges in further, it would put the city in the middle of a roiling debate over prescription drug costs. He would join Mayor Michael Albano of Springfield and the governors of Illinois, Minnesota, and other states on the front lines of a growing rebellion against the high cost of prescription drugs.

"The FDA cannot stand by while US citizens struggle to obtain drugs they need to stay healthy," Menino said in a telephone interview.

The mayor said any import program he launches would have provisions to protect neighborhood pharmacies from foreign competition. It could only be undertaken in conjunction with a broader federal initiative to bring down domestic prescription costs, he said, such as reconsidering tax incentives and research subsidies for drug manufacturers.

Menino added that he would like to try interim steps first, such as extending a discount program for Boston's elderly to uninsured city residents. He called on the state to launch a bulk-purchasing plan that would give it greater bargaining clout with drug companies.

Menino met with Albano yesterday in Boston to discuss how Springfield operates its Canadian drug-purchasing program, which has enrolled about 2,000 Springfield city workers and retirees and saved the city $600,000.

Yesterday, Menino released a copy of a letter he had sent to US Representative Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican and a proponent of Canadian imports who conducted a "congressional field forum" in Boston yesterday.

The FDA has repeatedly warned that transporting or mailing drugs into the United States from Canada is illegal. But the agency has said it does not intend -- at least for now -- to prosecute any state or local governments that import drugs. Meanwhile, the agency is under pressure from Congress and cities and states to alter its stance and set up a channel for legal, safe importation.

Menino was careful to say that he strongly supports "legal importation. Asked whether he would defy the FDA and set up a plan like Springfield's if the government does not change the rules, he said he would "very seriously" consider such a move. "We have some staff people right now working on this whole issue," he said.

The mayor's measured approach stood in contrast to the fiery defiance on display at Burton's hearing at the John W. McCormack Post Office and Courthouse. Witnesses included Albano, Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and officials from Illinois and Vermont, all of whom are in various stages of pursing drug imports.

Sharp criticism was directed at the FDA and the US drug industry by a bipartisan cast of US representatives -- including Martin Meehan, John F. Tierney, and Barney Frank, all Massachusetts Democrats, Jo Ann Emerson, Republican of Missouri, and Gil Gutknecht, Republican of Minnesota.

No one was present from the FDA, law enforcement, or the drug industry. That one-sidedness drew criticism from biotech executives gathered at the Logan Airport Hilton for a trade conference.

"The fact that they didn't ask for input from the biotech industry applies more to a successful pep rally than to a serious effort to find solutions to the high cost of health care," said Christopher Anderson, executive director of the Massachusetts High Technology Council.

Meehan responded that the industry has plenty of input in Washington, spending tens of millions of dollars a year on lobbyists: "You don't need to have them at a public hearing in Boston to hear from the pharmaceutical industry. You bump into them in every hallway in the Capitol."

Christopher Rowland can be reached at crowland@globe.com.

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