TORONTO -- Canada can't continue to be a cheap "drug store for the United States" and intends to ban bulk export of prescription drugs when supplies are low at home, the health minister said Wednesday.
Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh said he must ensure Canadians continue to have access to an adequate supply of safe and affordable prescription drugs, and he would launch initiatives, including legislative and regulatory changes, to protect the supply and safety of Canadian drugs.
Dosanjh, in a statement at a news conference in Ottawa, said he intended to introduce legislation when the House of Commons reconvenes this fall that would allow for the temporary ban of bulk exports when supplies are running low at home.
He also intends to establish a drug supply network within the federal ministry Health Canada and work with provinces and pharmaceutical companies to provide more comprehensive data on Canada's prescription drug supply.
Americans pay the highest prescription drug prices in the world, so U.S. lawmakers are pushing to legalize the importation of prescription drugs over the Internet from Canada. Four bills are pending in Congress but have met with opposition from the pharmaceutical lobby and from the Food and Drug Administration.
The concern in Ottawa is that if those bills are passed, Americans will hurt the supply chain in this much smaller country of 34 million people.
"In light of potential American legislation legalizing the bulk import of Canadian prescription and other medications, our priority must be the health and safety of all Canadians and the strength of our health care system," Dosanjh said. "We must be proactive in making sure that the supply of affordable prescription medications remains stable and sufficient to meet the needs of Canadians.
Some worry the long-anticipated move could kill a $700 million industry that has become increasingly popular with underinsured American patients.
The Bush administration opposes the prescription drug imports, and federal regulators warn they cannot guarantee the safety of drugs from outside U.S. borders.
But Canada has dismissed concerns about the safety of drugs sold in Canada, saying Canada's regulatory regime was tougher than the U.S. one.
As part of its socialized medical system, the Canadian government sets drug prices that are lower than those charged in the United States.
Under current practice, a prescription from a U.S. doctor is faxed to a Canadian doctor, who reviews the document along with the patient's health history. The Canadian doctor will then sign and fax the prescription to a so-called Internet pharmacy, which ships the drug to the patient.
Canadian officials say such sales endanger the Canadian drug supply, although they acknowledge no shortages currently exist.
The government also maintains it is unethical for doctors to sign prescriptions without examining patients and Dosanjh said the definition of patient-physician relationship had to be firmed up.