House refuses to swallow the pharmacy repeal
BISMARCK -- North Dakota pharmacists and defenders of the state's small towns came out on top Friday in the biggest battle of the 2009 Legislature. The House soundly defeated a proposed repeal of the state's 40-year-old law that requires pharmaci...
BISMARCK -- North Dakota pharmacists and defenders of the state's small towns came out on top Friday in the biggest battle of the 2009 Legislature.
The House soundly defeated a proposed repeal of the state's 40-year-old law that requires pharmacies in the state be majority-owned by a pharmacist. House Bill 1440 went down on a 57-35 vote after an hour-long debate that at times got emotional.
"Trust the people of North Dakota," said Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, who favored repeal and more choice for North Dakotans in where to shop for prescriptions.
"Let the people decide. Nobody's forcing anyone to do anything different," he said.
Nelson said that if the law is repealed, the Rugby hospital, on whose board he serves, would be able to operate a retail pharmacy.
"I think access can grow" if the law is repealed, he said.
The law is unique in the nation and explains why Wal-Mart, Walgreens and Target do not have pharmacies in their stores in North Dakota, where they would sell many of their prescriptions for $4 each.
That is why so many legislators and other North Dakotans said they supported the repeal.
Rep. Jasper Schneider, D-Fargo, a co-sponsor of the bill, asked, "Who's really standing up for the 60,000" North Dakotans without insurance or who are under-insured. He asked if legislators were willing to go back to their home cities and admit they were protecting the interests of a few over that of most North Dakotans.
He countered arguments by pharmacists and defenders of the law who said North Dakota's average prescription is $65 compared to the national $69 by noting that more than 20 states have lower-priced average prescription drugs than North Dakota, including Minnesota and South Dakota, which he said are "well below" North Dakota.
Rep. Lisa Meier, R-Bismarck, also favored repeal, saying that, if the state's pharmacists really believe--as they have argued recently--that they already offer the lowest prices and best service, "What are they afraid of?"
Many who argued to keep the law said rural people could lose access to a pharmacy if their small town drug store is forced to close after Wal-Mart or Walgreens opens pharmacies, and that North Dakota's law works well for its residents.
"We may not close that (small town) drug store. But I'm not going to take that chance," said Rep. Arlo Schmidt, D-Maddock.
Schmidt and Nelson serve the same district.
"I don't think we should be ashamed of the North Dakota way," said Rep. George Keiser, R-Bismarck, who defended the law.
Keiser said he doubted the arguments that overturning the law would lead to more variety and choice for pharmacy customers.
He said that on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., he walked through the Georgetown area and saw four drug stores. Every one of them was a CVS, he said, and when he asked if there were any in the area that were not CVS, he was told no.
"They're the Starbucks of pharmacies," he said.
CVS, a national chain, operates in North Dakota as a successor to Osco Drug chain of stores that was "grandfathered in" when the ownership law was passed in the 1960s. Another exception is the employee owned chain of Thrifty White Drug that has many stores in the state.
Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, said that Iceland and Norway had up until recently had a law similar to North Dakota's, and after repealing them, saw their prescription drug prices "skyrocket" and now they can't undo the repeal.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said.
The bill has resulted in some of the heaviest, most expensive lobbying of any session in recent years, along with a deluge of e-mails to lawmakers from people on both sides of the issue.
The prime sponsor, Rep. Bob Martinson, said he believed before he introduced the bill that
"this would be an absolute no-brainer. I was really wrong on that, wasn't I?"