With the support of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the city of Boston is joining the growing exodus of U.S. cities and states that now buy their prescription drugs in Canada. Under a pilot plan presented at a City Council meeting here Dec. 9, the city will save a million dollars by making its purchases of prescription maintenance drugs for city workers and retirees in Canada.

Legislators who spoke at the hearing acknowledged that importing pharmaceuticals from Canada is a short-term tactic, albeit with real savings. The real goal, they say, is the regulation of runaway prices for prescription drugs for all Americans.

City Councilor Felix Arroyo blamed the increasing cost of health care for those who need it most on the pharmaceutical corporations. “We need a limit to profits when our lives are on the line,” he said. City Councilor Michael Ross concurred: “There are tax breaks for the pharmaceutical industry, we provide them a safe environment for business. They export their goods and charge U.S. customers double.”

In supporting Boston’s move, Springfield’s then-Mayor Michael Albano noted, “As you go, so will the other big cities.” He pointed out that the states of New Hampshire and Minnesota are moving ahead on similar programs. According to Albano, 2,200 of his city’s employees and retirees signed up to obtain their maintenance drugs from Canada with licensed, certified pharmacies. Springfield was the first city in the nation to implement a program to import prescription drugs from Canada. Its example has been followed by Montgomery, Ala., and Burlington, Vt., as well as Boston. Springfield has saved $1 million since July, said Albano.

John Auerbach, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission testified: “The more states and cities that buy Canadian drugs, the more pressure on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to address the problem of the high cost of medication in this country.”

Massachusetts Senior Action Council and Community Catalyst with PHARMA were among the grassroots organizations testifying in favor of the pilot project.

In his testimony, State Sen. Jarrett Barrios, vice-chairman of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Health Committee, pointed out that the savings from the city’s program will save jobs for city employees. He attributed the high cost of drugs to a profit rate of 17 percent in the pharmaceutical industry. Marketing and administration account for 30.4 percent of drug costs, he said, while only 12.5 percent goes to research and development. “The Medicare bill does nothing” to address high drug costs, he said. In fact, it actually prohibits the government from negotiating a better price for consumers. Barrios said in addition to the action of state and city governments, millions of individual consumers are making their prescription drug purchases in Canada.

When Michael Valentino, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, was asked by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in December about how much his department has spent on foreign drugs, he said, “It’s been in the hundreds of millions of dollars over the last several years.”

City Councilor Arroyo acknowledged that it is illogical to have to import prescription drugs, but, he said, “Our prime concern is for the consumer being able to purchase needed drugs for life and health.”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.