Minnesota prescription drug program falling far short of goalby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesotans are importing fewer prescription drugs from Canada because of the new Medicare benefit that offers cheaper drugs. Both the state and the senior advocacy group the Minnesota Senior Federation give Minnesotans the chance to buy drugs from Canadian pharmacies at lower prices than in the United States. The two groups say the new Medicare drug benefit is mostly responsible for the dropoff, but the U.S. Customs Service also seized more drugs.
St. Paul, Minn. — When Gov. Pawlenty announced the MinnesotaRXConnect program two years ago, he predicted that it could cover 700,000 Minnesotans and save millions of dollars for consumers. The actual numbers are well short of those projections, and demand for the program has been declining sharply in recent months.
Human Services Commisioner Kevin Goodno says officials don't know precisely how many people have used the program, but he says the total number of prescriptions has been cut in half since it hit its peak in January 2005. More than 1,100 prescriptions were ordered that month compared to 440 prescriptions last month. Goodno says he expects demand to drop even farther because of the Medicare drug benefit, which started on the first of the year.
"The program is working," Goodno says. "We have seen fewer people ordering medications through the last few months and that was to be expected because of the implementation of Medicare Part D. We never expected to cover a large number of people under the program. We wanted to give people the option to purchasing medicine from other unknown operations."
The Minnesota Senior Federation's Pete Wyckoff says his organization has also seen a drop in orders on its Web site. He says there was a 25-percent decrease in prescription drug orders from Canadian pharmacies between September and January. Wyckoff also credits the drop-off to Medicare Part D. Seniors and people with disabilities are eligible for the federal benefit through private health insurance plans. The plans offer different coverage, but many people have to pay co-pays and deductibles.
While Wyckoff says there has been a drop in demand for Canadian drugs because of the Medicare benefit, he expects that to reverse in the coming months. He says many seniors will be forced to pay thousands of dollars for medicine when they hit the "doughnut hole" in the Medicare benefit. Wyckoff says he expects seniors will start looking for better prices when they hit the gap in coverage.
"People will try to get the best deal. It's as simple as that. And if they can get the best deal under Medicare Part D, they will use it. If they can get the best deal, even at various times of the year, under importation, they will do that as well," Wyckoff says.
There has been one reimportation program in Minnesota that has seen an increase in cross-border sales. The Department of Employee Relations Web site says about 2,700 state employees spent a record $134,000 on prescription drugs from Canada last month. That program has saved the state a half-million dollars.
Both the state and the Senior Federation say the U.S. Customs Department has seized more prescription drugs coming in from Canada in recent weeks. Wyckoff says 6 percent of Senior Federation members have reported that their drugs have been confiscated. Goodno, with DHS, says he has also seen an increase in seizures but mostly over the holidays when more packages were being sent. Both Goodno and Wyckoff say they don't think that has caused a drop in orders because Canadian pharmacies will resend a shipment at no cost if the mail order shipments have been seized.
The decrease in demand and the increase in mail order seizures by the federal government has led some DFLers to question the state sponsored program. DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza says the state should scrap its reimportation program and demand deeper discounts from drug companies by pooling Minnesota's purchases with other states.
"There's no reason why Minnesotans need to run to the border to Canada. We ought to be able to get low-cost drugs here and we can and the governor's Canadian plan has failed with the FDA even seizing drugs that are coming in that seniors and other folks need," according to Entenza.
Both the governor's office and the Department of Human Services say it's nonsense to scrap a program that has shown some success in favor of Entenza's proposal that might not even work. It's likely that state lawmakers will consider some prescription drug legislation during the upcoming session as seniors try to navigate their way through the new federal drug benefit.