Guest Column: Time to end the importation experiment

In October of last year, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich launched a state-run system dubbed I-SaveRx. It facilitates international prescription drug importation. The government program was announced with incredible fanfare and was an experiment to prove to federal lawmakers and regulators that importing medicines from overseas is both popular and safe and should be implemented on a national scale. But this is one experiment that’s failed miserably.

At the grand opening last fall, importation advocate Congressman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) called importation “a prairie fire that is building across America.” Just two weeks later, Gov. Blagojevich proudly claimed some 15,000 Illinoisans had requested enrollment forms into the fledgling program. What’s more, I-SaveRx had the very public support of the 1.6 million-member AARP Illinois. Indeed, it seemed they were off to a blazing start.

Today, more than six months into the government-sponsored importation experiment, Emanuel and Blagojevich’s prairie fire looks more like a wet firecracker. According to a recent Associated Press article, I-SaveRx has processed a paltry 6,300 orders—total. But Illinois isn’t alone to blame for missing their great expectations. Since October, governors in Kansas, Missouri, Vermont and Wisconsin have joined the program, only to see their seniors avoid it as well.

Now Minnesota is likewise experimenting in drug importation. Their own program has filled 10,000 prescriptions totaling $2 million in spending. Sounds impressive until you’re told Minnesotans actually spend $2.7 billion each year on prescriptions. So much for a prairie fire.

What has changed since states donned their lab coats and began experimenting with importation?

First, just two months after I-SaveRx made its debut, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Task Force issued a report condemning importation as unsafe, impractical policy. They found that any Americans already purchasing drugs from overseas are doing so “at significant risk.” This finding echoed what other public health officials have been saying for years. Importation isn’t worth the risks.

Second, seemingly before the Senate was even in session this January, Senators David Vitter (R-La.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) were introducing legislation that would extend importation from Canada across the Atlantic Ocean to nearly 30 other countries including Malta, Cypress, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Seniors weren’t impressed. An April poll by the Seniors’ Coalition found that 71 percent of patients oppose importation from precisely the countries Vitter and Dorgan propose we do business with. Clearly, seniors understand that importing drugs from Canada is a far different arrangement than from unknown origins a world away. There’s a prairie fire building across America all right; but not the kind Rep. Emanuel spoke of.

Finally, just this month, following a detailed investigation by his research firm, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani issued an importation feasibility report of his own. In it, he wrote that an importation system that can assure medicines being imported are safe and effective does not appear to exist. Additionally, if importation becomes law, the nation’s medicine supply would be vulnerable to exploitation by organized criminals, drug traffickers and terrorists. Lest we forget, Giuliani is a man who knows a little something about border security and terrorism.

Surely, those who support opening our borders to drug imports from around the world mean well. But as Karl Marx famously said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Blagojevich, Vitter, Dorgan and their importation allies deserve credit for exploring the policy in such bold, public ways. But now the public has spoken. It’s time to end the importation experiment.

“Liberty has never come from government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of government. The history of liberty is a history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of limitations of government power, not the increase of it.” —Woodrow Wilson, Sept. 9, 1912

Jason Wright is the president of The Institute for Liberty, a Virginia-based think tank that defends and promotes liberty in the markets, the courts, and in the halls of Congress.

From the July 20-26, 2005, issue

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