Mayor Thomas M. Menino backed the pilot program despite a federal prohibition on the practice and urging from Food and Drug Administration officials to drop the idea over concerns about the safety of the drugs.
"Drug prices have been rising too fast," Menino said in a statement. "We are pursuing importation as a way to help city of Boston workers and retirees access vital prescription drugs at affordable prices."
About 14,000 city workers, retirees and dependents enrolled in the Blue Cross and Blue Shield health plan are eligible for the voluntary Meds By Mail program.
The pilot program offers about 50 drugs from a list developed by a panel of doctors and pharmacists. Menino said the city's contract with Calgary-based Total Care Pharmacy Ltd. ensures quality and requires safeguards.
The program will be evaluated after a year and could be expanded to include more medications or allow more city employees to participate, said Mark Reynolds, a spokesman for Menino.
A number of states and cities facing budget crises have turned to Canada to buy prescription drugs for workers or made it easier for residents to hook up with Canadian Internet pharmacies. No city has been prosecuted for the practice, despite the federal ban.