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Orange County Register
Aug 20, 2004 - 01:00 AM

by JIM HINCH, JOHN GITTELSOHN and HANH KIM QUACH

Veto awaits drug measures;

Schwarzenegger pledges to reject bills for access to cheaper foreign medicines.
SACRAMENTO -- The Schwarzenegger administration vowed Thursday to veto bills that would enable Californians to buy cheaper prescription drugs from foreign pharmacies, saying it will push an alternative plan to give low-income residents smaller markdowns with a discount card.

In a letter delivered late Thursday to lawmakers, Health and Human Services Secretary Kim Belshé said four importation bills nearing approval are "contrary to federal law and (do) little to make prescription drugs more affordable for uninsured and underinsured Californians."

The bills, all sponsored by Democrats, would establish a Web site directing Californians to safe online Canadian pharmacies, where drugs are often half the U.S. cost, order the government to buy Canadian drugs for public hospitals and prisons, and allow pharmacists to be reimbursed through Medi-Cal for Canadian drugs.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan would enable residents earning less than $28,000 per year to use a discount card qualifying them for the price that states pay for drugs. Such prices, however, are sometimes higher than prices at Costco and online pharmacies, according to a study by the nonprofit Public Health Institute.

The plan also would establish a Web site pointing Californians to existing drug-company-sponsored discount programs, about which consumers often aren't aware.

Schwarzenegger's threatened veto puts him on a tightrope between consumers, who rank high drug costs a top health-care concern, and the pharmaceutical industry, which fiercely opposes drug importation, saying it could expose California residents to unsafe, unregulated drugs.

Drug companies have donated at least $337,200 to Schwarzenegger's campaign committees, according to the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a watchdog group.

Schwarzenegger's "proposal is basically a pharmaceutical company proposal that has been shopped around," said Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Los Angeles, sponsor of one of the bills.

Frommer said he would not amend his bill at this late date - the legislative session ends next week - and pointed out that Schwarzenegger this year said he would oppose last-minute wholesale revision of legislation because such moves give lawmakers little time for analysis.

Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, sponsor of one of the bills, said pharmaceutical company officials suggested to her recently that they were crafting a deal on drug prices.

"There was almost a smirk that they were working out something with the governor," she said.

Administration officials declined to comment beyond Belshé's letter.

Added Senate Leader John Burton, D-San Francisco, sponsor of another of the bills: "The administration is either with the pharmaceutical industry or the taxpayer... If (Schwarzenegger's) idea were a good one, why didn't (they) introduce it earlier?"




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