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Drug imports requested for state workers

Labor leaders representing more than 30,000 Massachusetts state employees have asked the Group Insurance Commission to consider the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, a move the unions said could lower medicine costs to taxpayers as well as to their members.

The request, to be announced at a State House news conference today, could draw Governor Mitt Romney into the contentious debate over US medicine prices. The Republican governor, who has avoided commenting on Canadian imports, responded coolly to the proposal yesterday, dismissing it through a spokeswoman as a "Band-Aid" solution.

The Group Insurance Commission provides health benefits for 265,000 state employees, retirees, and their dependents. While the commission is appointed by Romney, three of the 11 seats are set aside by law for union members. After a request from the National Association of Government Employees at a meeting Friday, the panel is scheduled to begin considering Canadian imports next month.

Union officials and Democrats in the Legislature said they were seeking to push Romney to take a stand on an issue that they believe is of high political interest to state workers and retirees, as well as seniors and private employers. Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, a Democrat, announced his support of Canadian imports last week. But while Reilly qualified his support and avoided criticizing Romney, the union involvement promises to generate more heat.

"We want the governor to show some leadership and take on his friends in big business," said NAGE spokeswoman Lesa Lessard. In a prepared statement, the president of NAGE, David J. Holway, said Canadian drugs make sense for cash-strapped governments.

"This plan gives us the opportunity to help people get safe prescription drugs at fair prices," said Holway, "and relieves the pressure on public budgets without making any painful budget cuts."

Union leaders dismissed the Food and Drug Administration's repeated warnings about the safety of drugs from Canada. The chances of counterfeit drugs reaching American consumers are increased by drug imports, the FDA says.

"I don't think there is any more danger in shipping it from Canada than there is from the West Coast," said John Templeton, president of Service Employees Union, Local 509, which represents social workers in state government. "They suddenly mention this when there is a possibility of their profits being cut into."

Romney warned the drug industry in a speech in August that high prescription prices were putting elected leaders under enormous pressure to balance budgets, but he did not propose any solutions. Since then, a number of Midwestern states have begun considering import programs, and the Republican governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, announced last week that his administration is moving ahead with a program.

Yesterday Romney spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman said the governor does not believe Canadian imports are a viable solution for the long term. Romney would oppose any move for the state to import drugs, unless it could be done safely and legally under a system approved by the FDA. The federal agency has repeatedly warned that importing medicine from foreign countries is illegal and potentially unsafe.

"The governor is not opposed to legalizing drug reimportation, but he recognizes that it is a Band-Aid solution to the problem," said Feddeman. She pointed out that drug companies are moving to curb the imports by US citizens by limiting wholesale supply to some Canadian pharmacies, which could cause the Canadian trade to shrivel.

"Governor Romney has already spoken out for the need for pharmaceutical companies to lower prices," Feddeman said. "He put the pharmaceutical companies on notice."

Unions joining NAGE and SEIU Local 509 are the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93, the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, and the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists. The unions' joint support was sought by state Senator Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge, the sponsor of a bill that would set up an official information clearinghouse for Massachusetts residents who want to buy medicine from Canada, where government controls keep prices 20 percent to 80 percent lower than in the United States.

Today's planned announcement coincides with a publicity-oriented bus trip scheduled by Barrios and other supporters of importing drugs, including Representative Michael E. Festa of Melrose, the House sponsor of the Canadian bill, and Senator Mark Montigny of New Bedford. The trip is scheduled to leave Boston after the news conference, stop for rallies in Marlborough and Worcester, and wind up in Springfield, where Mayor Michael Albano has put his city in the forefront of rebellion against federal policies by establishing the nation's first government importation plan for employees.

Barrios, Festa, and Montigny distributed a letter to their State House colleagues yesterday calling on Romney to take a more aggressive stand. They criticized the governor for rejecting a bill in June that would have set up a bulk-purchasing plan to give the state more negotiating clout with drug companies. Barrios said the multipronged effort this week was designed to put Romney on the spot.

"The governor will be forced to respond and reveal whose side he is on, the elderly and sick residents of Massachusetts or Big Pharma," said Barrios.

Feddeman said Romney disagreed with elements of the bulk-purchasing bill because it did not give him the "flexibility" needed to operate such a system. Instead of vetoing the bill, he sent it back to the Legislature for further consideration and still sees it as a viable alternative to Canadian imports, she said. But she would not provide any details of Romney's views on holding down drug costs.

"The governor is committed," she said, "to devising a long-term strategy to bring down the prices of prescription drugs."

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

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