LYNN SWEET, Chicago Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief, reports:

WASHINGTON — The state of Illinois unveils a program today to make it easier for residents to buy cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, England and Ireland, defying the Bush administration in a popular but illegal move.

“The federal government has failed to act,” Gov. Blagojevich said in a statement. “So it’s time that we do.”

For a year, Blagojevich and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) have taken a national lead on the importation issue, which has been opposed by the drug industry.

Illinois has been unsuccessful in getting permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to run pilot programs for importing certain brand name prescription drugs from Canada. Emboldened because the FDA has yet to crack down on a state or local government or even an individual buying foreign drugs, Illinois decided to finally take the plunge.

But the FDA is threatening to take the defiant state to court.

William Hubbard, FDA associate commissioner for policy and planning, told the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday the pending Illinois action is “clearly and unequivocally illegal and the FDA will be concerned about the safety of the drugs. … These sorts of activities could force us to a federal judge to referee the matter.”

The Illinois drug import plan could be used by all state residents, no matter what they earn, and savings could run from 25 percent to 50 percent per prescription. The program is aimed at people who do not have health insurance with prescription drug coverage, or who have a policy with a very high co-pay.

The state estimates that 2.8 million of the 12.6 million residents in Illinois do not have prescription drug coverage.

There is also a big benefit for the cash-starved state of Illinois government, which pays prescription drug costs for 420,000 state workers, their dependents and retirees. The state estimates taxpayers will eventually, when the plan is fully implemented, save up to $50 million a year.

Drug importation — pushed by Blagojevich and Emanuel, who has made the matter a crusade — has emerged as a major election-year issue, especially among seniors, and has been embraced by Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

Despite resistance from the Bush White House, importation also has GOP support.

Boston, Minnesota and Wisconsin all have Web links to Canadian drug sellers, where price controls discount the price of pills. Other states have also made FDA appeals.

Under the Illinois drug import program, to start in about a month, all residents will be able to use a state-sponsored Canadian clearinghouse to buy certain prescription drug refills via a Web site or toll-free telephone line.

After the plan gets up and running, the state will lure state workers and retirees by waiving any co-payments if they order drugs through the Web site.

Illinois inspectors — or people hired on behalf of the state — will monitor the 35 to 50 foreign pharmacies and providers in the clearinghouse system for quality control and safety.

The state becomes the first in the nation to offer discounted prescription drugs from England and Ireland, in addition to Canada.

The House of Representatives, in a drive orchestrated by Emanuel, has passed legislation allowing importation of drugs from Canada and several other countries. The legislation is stalled in the Senate.

A change in the Medicare law last year, backed by the Bush White House, created drug discount cards that will help some seniors with high drug costs, though the full benefit of the plan will not be available until 2006.

Prescription drugs, said Emanuel “are the only product where U.S. consumers pay more than anyone else in the world.”

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How drug program will work

Illinois is launching a program for residents to buy cheaper foreign drugs from Canada, England and Ireland.

Q. Who will be eligible to use the Illinois plan?

A. Any Illinois resident. Residency will be verified.

Q. How will it work?

A. Illinois consumers — no matter what their income — will be able to place orders over a Web site or a toll-free line.

Q. What is the Web site name and phone number?

A. The state does not have the name or number at this time.

Q. When will the Illinois Drug Import Plan start?

A. In about a month.

Q. Can I buy any prescription drug I want?

A. No. Only about 100 drugs — most for chronic or long-term conditions such as arthritis or high blood pressure — will be available. This system is not intended to fill prescriptions for people who need something right away to treat an illness, such as an antibiotic or a painkiller.

Q. Is this legal?

A. No.

Q. Will I get in trouble for ordering the foreign drugs?

A. Very unlikely at present. The federal Food and Drug Administration has not busted anyone for buying Canadian drugs. The FDA is threatening to take Illinois to court. Minnesota and Wisconsin have been running Web sites for their residents to buy Canadian drugs and the FDA has not shut them down. The city of Springfield, Mass., has been buying Canadian drugs and has not been sanctioned.

Q. What is the discount range?

A. The state is aiming at 25 percent to 50 percent less.

Q. Do you have an example?

A. According to the state, a 30-day supply of Lipitor — which controls cholesterol — costs about $214 in the United States and will sell for $144 from an Irish drug outlet, $158 from England and $162 from Canada.

Q. Who will this plan help the most?

A. People with no or poor insurance covering prescription drugs. If you have insurance that covers prescription drugs and has a relatively low co-pay, the Illinois Drug Import Plan will probably not save you money.

Q. How will this impact state employees and retirees?

A. After the plan gets up and running, the state will try to lure this group by waiving co-payments if they order drugs through the Web site.

Q. And how will it work?

A. The plan only covers refills. U.S. doctors will have to fax or mail in a prescription to a state-sponsored clearinghouse. A physician will have to approve the order. The consumer must fill out some forms asking for health, billing and shipping information.

Q. How long will it take to get an order?

A. Between one and three weeks, depending on the country.

Q. What about safety?

A. Federal and pharmaceutical industry officials say safety cannot be guaranteed. Illinois will oversee the foreign pharmacies through an inspection system. The state estimates about 35 to 50 foreign pharmacies will be used.

Lynn Sweet