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Illinois Looks To Canada For Drugs

Gov. Rod Blagojevich is exploring whether Illinois might save millions of dollars if health plans allowed for state employees and retirees to buy prescription drugs from Canada.

"Anything we can do that safely and effectively reduces those costs is definitely worth looking into," Blagojevich said Sunday in a statement.

Americans seeking relief from high prescription drug prices have increasingly turned to pharmacies in Canada, where prescription drugs are much cheaper because of a favorable exchange rate and government controls.

Blagojevich wants to follow the lead of Springfield, Mass., which has begun buying prescription drugs in Canada in a voluntary program for city workers and retirees. The governor has asked the state Office of the Special Advocate to report on the cost savings potential of such a move.

The drug purchase idea has the support of Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who was part of a bipartisan coalition in the U.S. House that passed a bill in July that would allow Americans to buy reimported prescription drugs. He said if a state as big as Illinois made such purchases, the government and pharmaceutical companies would have to take notice.

"It's one thing when the city of Springfield, Mass., does it. It's another thing when the state of Illinois does it," Emanuel said. He said taxpayers in Illinois pay $340 million just to cover the prescriptions of 230,000 state workers and retirees.

The rising cost of prescription drugs is putting pressure on employers and government insurance programs.

Health care premiums for families in employer-sponsored plans soared 13.9 percent in 2003, the third year of double-digit growth and the biggest spike since 1990, a study published last week found.

Annual family premiums increased to $9,068 this spring, according to a survey of 2,808 companies by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust, each a health research organization.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the portion of personal income spent on medical care rose from 15 percent in 1999 to 15.7 percent in 2002.

Medicare, meanwhile, projected expenditures to rise from $256.8 billion in 2002 to $276.8 billion in 2003 — a leap of about 2 percent per participant.