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Forum editorial: N.D. elderly affected by drug ruling

As if things weren't bad enough for North Dakota's senior citizens, they got even worse for some of them last week. In a state where disposable income is a problem for many residents, especially the elderly, those who are dependent on expensive p...

As if things weren't bad enough for North Dakota's senior citizens, they got even worse for some of them last week.

In a state where disposable income is a problem for many residents, especially the elderly, those who are dependent on expensive prescription drugs got some more bad news.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota said that as of May 1 it has stopped paying for prescription drugs purchased in Canada because it fears possible legal action by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Although the decision to stop payment on the cheaper Canadian drugs affects a very small number of Blue Cross Blue Shield subscribers, it once again shines a spotlight on the wide gap in prices for prescription drugs in the United States and Canada.

The decision by the North Dakota Blues places another burden on the pocketbooks of the 200 subscribers who filed claims for prescriptions purchased in Canada last year. Insurance payments during a six-month period ending in March totaled almost $47,500.

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The North Dakota insurer said it was forced to halt reimbursements for routine prescription purchases north of the border after its attorneys concluded the Blues would be subject to severe penalties by the U.S. government.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, it is illegal to import drugs -- even those made in the United States -- for resale.

As ridiculous as it may seem, Larry Gauper, vice president for communication at the North Dakota Blues, said the the state's largest health insurer could be held legally responsible for aiding and abetting the illegal sale of drugs. He said the Blues can't afford to run the risk of being prosecuted.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., called the whole situation "absurd." That's probably as good a word as any to describe the development.

Dorgan, who has long opposed the high cost of prescription drugs in this country, ripped the FDA's policy and said the head of the federal agency "has to have his head in the sand on this."

To his credit, Dorgan is proposing legislation that would make the "re-importation" of U.S. drugs legal for businesses and individuals.

It seems almost laughable to us that FDA officials say they're concerned about the safety of drugs imported from Canada since prescription drug laws in the United States and Canada are very similar.

On top of that, the Canadian health ministry announced a few days ago that it will be responsible for the safety and quality of prescription drugs flowing across the border to American consumers. That's good enough for us.

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It's shameful that a law enacted three years ago to allow U.S. pharmacists and drug distributors to re-import lower-priced, FDA-approved medicines hasn't been implemented in the U.S. largely because of alleged safety concerns.

On average, prescription drugs manufactured in the United States cost 38 percent less in Canada. That kind of savings can make a real difference to senior citizens on limited incomes who are dependent on prescription drugs.

The U.S. government needs to get serious about doing something to stop the spiraling cost of prescription drugs before the day comes when none of us can afford them.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper's Editorial Board

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Mikkel Pates set the standard for agricultural journalism during his 44-year career in the region, working for Agweek, The Forum and the Worthington Globe.