Maine’s Foreign Policy On Prescription Drugs

There are quite a few pharmacies in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Google lists nine in or near the center of town, which is a lot for the approximately 6,800 people who live there.

I have no immediate plans to visit the pharmacies in Yarmouth, where I am traveling on business this week. But I have shopped there in the past, as have many of the American visitors who often passed through Yarmouth before the ferry connecting it to the U.S. was suspended in 2009.

Americans facing high costs for medication have turned to other countries, including Canada, for years. Though it is illegal to bring pharmaceutical products over the border, the rules are seldom enforced at an individual level.

Now, however, a state has raised the stakes surrounding this issue. Last week The Wall Street Journal reported that Maine has passed a law purportedly allowing its residents to buy prescription drugs from certain foreign mail-order pharmacies.

It makes sense that Maine would be a leader in encouraging the importation of cheaper prescription drugs. Maine borders the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick, and the aforementioned ferry used to regularly carry travelers from Portland and Bar Harbor to Nova Scotia. Buying medicine in Canada is old hat to a lot of Mainers.

It makes no sense that Americans are asked to pay the highest prescription prices in the developed world and thereby subsidize patients in places like Canada, Australia and Britain. The United States is alone among industrialized nations in lacking some form of price controls on patented medications. Pharmaceutical companies argue that price limits or government-organized central purchasing would hinder research and innovation.

Part of the political price for getting drug companies to support the Affordable Care Act was that the Obama administration did not push for legalized importation to upset this expensive status quo. Instead, it seems the administration now intends to ignore the violation of a federal law that is still in effect.

A coalition of pharmacy owners and pharmaceutical companies has filed a lawsuit against Maine’s new law, pointing out that it circumvents the federal regulatory structure and claiming that importing drugs from abroad poses “serious health risks” for patients. While critics are quick to point out in turn that drug makers and distributors are more likely worried about their own profits than the public welfare, the fact that the plaintiffs have a monetary stake in the outcome does not mean the federal law they cite is any less real or relevant.

I support importation, but I also support the consistent and fair application of the law. Customs stations in Maine are staffed by federal officials, not state employees. Maine does not get to set its own foreign policy, even if that policy is more sensible than the federal government’s.

State-level efforts to create more consumer-friendly importation laws ought to prompt Washington to revisit its own policy, much as with state-level marijuana legalization. For now, however, the law prohibiting importation of pharmaceuticals is still in place. The Obama administration does nobody any favors by avoiding the question of when or whether it might choose to enforce what is on the books.

As for the pharmacies in Yarmouth, good news: Ferry service is due to resume next year. The Americans will return soon, no doubt with fresh prescriptions in hand.

About Larry M. Elkin 553 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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