Many lawmakers undecided on pharmacy lawMany North Dakota lawmakers say they have not yet made up their minds on whether to abolish the only state law that requires pharmacies to have pharmacists as the majority owners. The proposal has kindled a lobbying battle royal.
By: By Dale Wetzel, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK — Many North Dakota lawmakers say they have not yet made up their minds on whether to abolish the only state law that requires pharmacies to have pharmacists as the majority owners. The proposal has kindled a lobbying battle royal.
Opponents say the existing law, in effect more than 40 years, prevents Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens and other large retailers from offering hundreds of generic prescription drugs for $4 each through company-owned pharmacies.
Supporters of the law say North Dakota’s pharmacy drug costs are not out of line, and that pharmacies owned by pharmacists provide better overall health care for their customers.
The Associated Press, in a pre-session survey of the North Dakota Legislature, asked lawmakers whether they believe the state’s pharmacy ownership law should be repealed, kept or changed. Thirty-eight of the Senate’s 47 members and 80 of the 94 House members replied.
Fourteen senators said the law should be kept, 12 said they were undecided and nine said it should be abolished. Three senators said the law should be kept, with additional exemptions.
Among House members, 32 favored retaining the pharmacy ownership law, while 27 were undecided. Sixteen said it should be repealed, five said it should be kept with additional exemptions.
One of the exemptions is for hospital pharmacies, which need not be owned by pharmacists as long as they serve only the hospital’s own patients.
Dan Traynor, a Devils Lake attorney and lobbyist for Wal-Mart, said earlier attempts to repeal the law have drawn little or no support. Recent efforts by Wal-Mart and other large retailers to offer $4 generic drug prescriptions have helped focus attention on the issue, he said.
“I’ve been quite pleased with the fact that a number of legislators have an open mind about this,” Traynor said. “I think we’ve come a long way from times where this has gotten one or two votes.”
Mike Schwab, a spokesman for the North Dakota Pharmacists Association, said the law has helped to promote greater availability of pharmacies in rural areas. Studies have found North Dakota’s drug prices are below national averages, Schwab said.
“To just assume that because of our ownership law, we’re denying access to $4 prescriptions, or we are not being competitive in our pricing, that is just not the case,” Schwab said.
North Dakotans for Affordable Healthcare, a group backed by large retailers that was established to press for repeal, has been airing television ads that emphasize the $4 prescriptions and feature people declaring their support for lower drug costs.
A number of legislators interviewed Tuesday said they had received dozens of pre-addressed Christmas cards provided by repeal advocates to constituents for mailing. The cards urged them to support abolishing the ownership restriction.
Schwab said supporters of the ownership law are outgunned “from a money standpoint and a marketing standpoint. There’s no question about that.”
Many North Dakota pharmacists believe the debate has unfairly depicted them as supporting higher drug prices, Schwab said.
“They feel like the message is that they’ve been ripping off the citizens,” he said. “That’s not even close to the truth.”