DRUG WARS: PEOPLE VS. DRUG COMPANIES - Retail Pharmacies Caught Between

By Bob Weaver

WV state pharmacists are worried they will have to pay the cost of a proposed prescription drug discount card, as part of a bill passed by the state Senate last week.

The Senate version of helping consumers purchase drugs has dropped the part which would hook on to a federal drug purchasing registry, which would allow West Virginia to access drugs at discount prices.

After some of the heaviest lobbying seen in recent years by the drug companies, legislators backed away from an aggressive plan to tap discounted prices, fearing the drug companies would bring lawsuits against the state, which they have threatened to do.

SEE earlier Hur Herald Opinion and Comment: 3-9-2004 "LORD, RELIEVE US FROM THOSE THAT SEEK TO HELP US" - Prescription Drug Relief Becomes A Placebo

Pharmacies, which make about 3% profit retailing the drugs, would pay the cost of most existing drug discount cards, according to Richard Stevens, executive director of the West Virginia Pharmacists' Association.

The Senate's version doesn't specify who would have to pay for it, Stevens said.

The Bush administration has blocked the purchasing of highly discounted drugs sold by American companies to Canada. They say it is to protect the public from drugs that might be of a lesser quality.

A Charleston consumer advocate said "No free trade here!"

Pharmacies are not to blame for the high cost of prescription drugs.

The discount card program would hook consumers with discount programs offered by manufacturers.

Even if lawmakers specify that manufacturers have to pay for a discount drug program, pharmacists still could have trouble, Stevens said.

Drug stores in West Virginia say it can take between three and six months to receive reimbursement from the manufacturer who offer marginal discounts.

Stevens would like the state to reimburse the pharmacists first. That way, they would receive timely payments. "Pharmacies can only give so much," he said. "The question is, how much more can you take from pharmacies?"