Pharmacists relationship questionedNorth Dakota pharmacists’ licensing board and trade association need to be split up, legislators decided Thursday, citing possible fallout from a federal trade investigation and other issues. Rep. Rick Berg, R-Fargo, also grilled the pharmacy groups about compliance with open meetings-open records laws and why the licensing board has a $1 million reserve on hand while asking legislators to allow it to raise licensing fees.
By: By Janell Cole, N.D. Capitol Bureau, The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK — North Dakota pharmacists’ licensing board and trade association need to be split up, legislators decided Thursday, citing possible fallout from a federal trade investigation and other issues.
Rep. Rick Berg, R-Fargo, also grilled the pharmacy groups about compliance with open meetings-open records laws and why the licensing board has a $1 million reserve on hand while asking legislators to allow it to raise licensing fees.
Thursday’s exchanges were at the Legislature’s interim Industry, Business and Labor Committee, of which Berg is chairman.
The North Dakota pharmacy industry is one of only two in the state that requires people licensed in their profession to also join the professional association. The other is lawyers, who must get a license from the state and must also join the State Bar Association.
In the pharmacists’ case, practitioners pay a $200 license fee annually to the state Board of Pharmacy, of which half is shunted off to the North Dakota Pharmacists Association as membership dues. Mandatory membership in the association and the shared fees are blessed in state law.
Berg, along with some pharmacists and groups such as the North Dakota Health Care Association, want the law changed. It’s not fair for pharmacists to have to support an association whose policies or political positions they disagree with, they said.
“No other North Dakota health profession or health organization regulated by the state has this type of financial arrangement,” complained Arnold “Chip” Thomas of the North Dakota Healthcare Association, which represents hospitals. Others questioning the pharmacists Thursday included Sen. Nick Hacker, R-Grand Forks, and Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo.
Pharmacists’ Association Executive Director Mike Schwab said pharmacists can ask for their association dues to be returned.
The committee voted to forward a bill to the 2009 Legislature that ends the legal connection between the board and association.
Berg cited two investigations in the past decade that illustrate why the connection creates problems.
In 2003, he said, the pharmacists’ association circulated a memo suggesting members join to reject a reimbursement plan from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota and hold out for higher pay. The Federal Trade Commission has an ongoing investigation, Berg said, about whether the pharmacists’ plan was illegal restraint of trade.
Berg said all North Dakota pharmacists could be legally implicated because they’re forced to be association members.
Berg asked for memos, minutes and any other documents the association has about the issue that led to the FTC investigation, saying it is a public entity subject to the open meetings-open records law.
Berg and other legislators also questioned state Board of Pharmacy Executive Director Howard Anderson why the board didn’t discipline more pharmacists involved in a 1999 federal investigation of pharmacists who sold or bartered prescription samples. Some were prosecuted criminally and disciplined.
Anderson said the board asked for FBI records so they could determine who else was involved but the FBI refused.
Berg questioned why the board “didn’t contact the attorney general or anyone else” to help investigate.
“If you had illegal activity going on and you’re not enforcing — policing — that, who’s protecting the people of North Dakota?” he asked.
He also criticized the board for coming to the last Legislature and seeking higher license fees when it has a $1 million reserve.
He called on Gordy Smith, of the state Auditor’s Office, who testified, “A million dollars is an enormous amount of money” for a state licensing board. It means the office could operate for four years without collecting any more licensing fees at all.
In other developments Thursday, Berg said the committee will not forward a bill to the 2009 session overturning a law requiring pharmacies in the state be owned by a pharmacist who has at least 51 percent ownership, a 1960s law that prevents Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens and other corporations from operating their own pharmacies.
Berg said his there isn’t a consensus on the committee. He added that he expects individual legislators will introduce a bill nevertheless.
Cole works for Forum
Communications Co., which
owns The Jamestown Sun