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Pharmacy law again target of proposed ballot measure

BISMARCK — Backers of a proposed ballot measure that would change North Dakota’s pharmacy ownership law to open the door to national retail pharmacies such as Wal-Mart and Walgreens hope to collect the necessary signatures in time to get the measure on the November ballot.

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Proponents gathered nearly 14,000 signatures for a similar measure in 2010, but Secretary of State Al Jaeger rejected the petitions on a technical error because they weren’t circulated with the list of petition sponsors. The North Dakota Supreme Court upheld Jaeger’s decision.

That setback and at least five failed attempts to convince the state Legislature to repeal the law, most recently in 2011, haven’t deterred measure sponsors.

“This is an antiquated, protectionist piece of law that we want taken away,” said Larry Gauper of Fargo, a member of the petition’s sponsoring committee. “I would like to have the same choices as consumers have in 49 other states.”

The proposed measure would repeal a 50-year-old section of state law that requires pharmacies to be majority-owned by pharmacists who are licensed in North Dakota — the only state in the nation with such a requirement.

The law effectively bans chain retailers such as Wal-Mart, Walgreens and Target from operating pharmacies in the state, though there are some exceptions, including a grandfather clause for chains such as CVS Pharmacy that were in place in North Dakota before July 1, 1963.

Measure proponents are waiting for Jaeger to approve their petition submitted last week so they can start circulating it for signatures. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum said Friday the plan is to respond to the sponsoring committee on Monday, and he anticipates the petition will be approved for circulation after some “very” minor changes are made.

Sponsors need 13,452 signatures by Aug. 6 to get the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot, which Gauper said will be “quite a burden.” If it takes longer, the measure could appear in a subsequent election, he said.

Opponents of the law — which has twice been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court — argue that lifting the ownership restriction would create more competition in the marketplace and reduce prescription drug prices while also giving consumers access to discounts offered by drugstore chains.

Gauper, who lives in Fargo but shops at a Wal-Mart pharmacy in neighboring Moorhead, Minn., said the issue boils down to consumer choice. He said if independent pharmacies offer lower prices and better service as they claim, “then they will beat the national retailer, and I don’t know what they’re afraid of.”

The North Dakota Pharmacists Association supports the existing law and contends it results in better access to pharmaceutical care, especially in rural areas.

Association President Steve Boehning of Fargo said the assumption that repealing the law will boost competition and reduce prescription drug prices is “a completely bogus argument.”

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.