HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Thursday that he is seeking federal permission to import cheaper drugs from Canada for use in state insurance programs.
Schweitzer said he thinks the move could chop 40 percent off the $100 million the state spends each year on prescription drugs for Medicaid, the children's health insurance program, state employees, and inmates at the prison.
"We know we can save a lot of money," Schweitzer said.
The governor said he envisions the state setting up a deal with a Canadian wholesaler that could mail the drugs to local pharmacies on insurance plans paid for by the state. In the case of the prison, the governor said he expects the state would order those directly.
The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said Thursday it had not yet seen Montana's request and couldn't comment.
Schweitzer was first involved in the issue during an unsuccessful U.S. Senate run in 2000, when he made cheap Canadian drugs a cornerstone of his platform and would take busloads of seniors north of the border to buy drugs.
The issue has been debated in Washington, D.C., over the years.
Recently, the U.S. Senate rejected a plan to let Americans import prescription drugs from abroad. Such a change would deprive drug makers of billions of dollars.
Both the pharmaceutical industry and the Obama administration also have argued that such plans would not protect people from potentially dangerous or ineffective drugs -- a notion at which Schweitzer and other supporters scoff.
"These are the same drugs from the same places," Schweitzer said of the Canadian pharmaceuticals.
Schweitzer is asking Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to exercise authority to certify the drugs to be safe, to waive Medicaid requirements that such funds only be spent within U.S. borders, and to make other allowances.
Schweitzer said he decided to move forward with the idea now because Congress has not solved the problem with health care reform and because the state is desperately looking for ways to cut costs.
"Desperate times make us desperate people," Schweitzer said.
The governor said he hopes for a waiver within the year.