HELENA, Mont. — The governor of Montana asked Tuesday for federal permission to sell cheaper prescription drugs in his state through the federal Medicaid program, a proposal he expects will catch the eye of other cash-strapped states.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who launched his political career a decade ago by taking busloads of seniors to Canada to buy cheap drugs, said the waiver would allow Montana residents to get the drugs at about half the retail price.
Schweitzer said the federal government can get cheap drug prices for Medicaid, the federal program for seniors and low-income residents, because of Congress' negotiations with special interest groups. Those prices are far less than the price for those on Medicare, which usually serves the elderly, or private insurance plans, he added.
He said he got a copy of a highly confidential Medicaid drug price list by getting his chief of staff to sign a nondisclosure agreement that is usually handled at the state agency level. Schweitzer said it is obviously unfair to charge one group of people far less than another group of people for the same product.
He said his plan would cost the government nothing – and could even save it money because it would open up the doors for government-subsidized Medicare patients to buy-in at the cheaper Medicaid rate.
"It doesn't cost the citizens of Montana a dime, and it doesn't cost the federal government a dime," said Schweitzer.
He is seeking a waiver from Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to allow the unique prescription drug program in Montana. The waiver program is complex, and the application lengthy. Schweitzer said it could take months, or longer, to get an answer.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who oversees the centers, told him she was "intrigued" by the idea, he added. CMMS didn't immediately return a call Tuesday seeking comment on the proposal.
"I don't think we are going to get turned down," Schweitzer said.
Schweitzer has been putting a spotlight on the money the pharmaceutical industry makes by charging more in the United States for its products. He unsuccessfully sought to get federal approval to bring cheaper drugs from Canada to Montana, and to buy cheaper medicine given to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
He called the drug industry "full of crap" for arguing that the medicine bought in Canada isn't safe for consumption in the United States.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents the medical drug industry, declined to comment on his newest proposal until it could look into the plan.