"While many in our industry believe that importation is a fundamentally flawed concept and oppose it without exception, I have come to a slightly different view," Thomas Ryan, CVS chairman and chief executive officer, said in prepared testimony for a government task force on drug importation.
Ryan is the first executive of a large drug store chain to support importing drugs from countries where prices are controlled by governments so that people can fill prescriptions more cheaply than they can at U.S. pharmacies. Ryan said such a move would be a recognition of reality.
"Millions of Americans already have opted to import drugs because they can't afford not to. We owe it to them to face this issue head on and not look the other way," Ryan said.
The government panel is considering whether and how drugs could be safely imported from Canada and elsewhere. Spending on drug products in the United States increased by 119 percent from 1992 to 2002, according to Commerce Department statistics — about three times as fast all overall spending grew.
The Bush administration and Republican leaders in Congress, as well as the pharmaceutical industry, have opposed legalizing drug imports, citing safety concerns.
"Importation is neither a panacea nor a long-term solution to our country's need for meaningful and affordable prescription drug coverage within health insurance," Johnson and Johnson executive John Dempsey told the panel earlier this month.
Opening the country's borders to drugs that require only partial Food and Drug Administration inspections or vary from FDA-approved drugs would allow counterfeiters to "contaminate our drug supply earlier in the process," he said.
Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona said earlier this month that there would be, including worries about counterfeiting.
Carmona said he has not closed the door to finding a way to make importation legal, but he said the panel needs to make sure any program would guarantee patient safety.
Ryan said, however, that he believed importing prescription drugs can be done safely by using established distributors of pharmaceuticals in this country. He suggested a two-year trial run while the government seeks a long-term solution to soaring U.S. drug prices.
Three governors also called on the federal government to put in place quickly a means of safely allowing importation.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, whose agency has led the opposition to imported drugs, on Tuesday became the first senior Bush administration official to say that legalizing drug imports appears inevitable.
Thompson said imports would save consumers money and that he would urge President Bush not to stand in the way of legislation in Congress to make them legal.
Right now, pharmaceutical companies and some regulators are increasing their efforts to prevent importation.
Eli Lilly and Co. recentlyby requiring Canadian Internet pharmacies to tell Lilly how much of Lilly's drugs they order from wholesalers or possibly be cut off from supplies.
The Food and Drug Administration recently admitted that itreturning from a medicine-buying trip to Canada.
After a "cursory review," the FDA agents determined that the drugs could be imported and no drugs were seized, said John Taylor, the FDA's associate commissioner for regulatory affairs.