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Maine OKs international prescription drug imports

AUGUSTA, Maine — Mainers will soon be able to once again buy less expensive, mail-order prescription drugs from other countries, despite concerns from some pharmacists that the practice is unsafe.

Under a new state law, residents will be able to buy drugs through firms like CanaRx. The Canadian business distributes prescription medications by mail and from licensed pharmacies in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.

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Some pharmacists fear the law will open up the state’s borders to counterfeit drugs, posing health risks to Maine residents. But supporters say it will provide significant cost savings to consumers and the state.

‘‘People need to be able to access life-saving drugs at a reasonable price, and this law gives Mainers more options while still allowing Maine pharmacies to negotiate with CanaRx,’’ Assistant Democratic leader Troy Jackson, who sponsored the legislation, said in a statement.

CanaRx acts as a middleman, taking prescriptions written by doctors in the United States and filling them in out-of-country pharmacies. The prescriptions are approved by doctors in the foreign country, said Chris Collins, the group’s insurance program director. The company said patients can save up to 80 percent off US retail prices.

Until last year, the state of Maine contracted with CanaRx to offer state employees low-cost prescription medications for diabetes, arthritis, and other medical conditions in a program called MaineMeds. But in August, then-Attorney General William Schneider said the program violated state law because CanaRx could not be licensed in Maine.

The new law exempts pharmacies in certain countries from licensing requirements, allowing the state, cities, and businesses to legally contract with CanaRx or similar firms. The law also affirms that individuals are allowed to get prescription drugs from those countries. It goes into effect 90 days after the end of the legislative session, expected by early July.

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Collins said CanaRx has not yet discussed with the state if and when they will restart the program.

‘‘I am very disappointed partly because this bill in my opinion significantly jeopardizes patients’ safety,’’ said Kenneth McCall, president of the Maine Pharmacy Association. ‘‘This bill opens up the secure drug supply chain and allows these types of counterfeit medications into the community.’’

McCall said that if a patient has a problem with a medication, the state will have no way of holding the international pharmacies accountable. He said Maine residents can get generic brands in the United States often for just as cheap as from another country.

Critics say allowing international prescription drugs into Maine may violate US law. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, it’s illegal to import drugs from other nation that have not been approved by the FDA for use and sale in the United States.

Collins said CanaRx operates only in countries that have just-as-strict regulations and oversight as in the United States.

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