When two British publications – The Economist magazine and The Financial Times – pay tribute, of sorts, to the actions of a single state in the USA, you can be sure that history has been made. And in fact it has: The innovative Maine Rx program, aimed at curbing the cost of prescription drugs, passed an important legal hurdle last month when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed it to move forward.

While many people can take credit for this victory over the drug monopolies, special tribute is due to a solitary woman activist who would not allow the naysayers to hold her back. Chellie Pingree made the control of drug prices her main issue when she headed up the state of Maine’s Senate. And it was her issue when she ran for the U.S. Senate.

While Pingree has not won an election since she left state government (she has since become executive director of Common Cause), her influence has not decreased. She helped wield the sword that slayed the dragon – the big pharmaceutical companies – in the state of Maine.

What happened?

A few years ago, the people of Maine and other Canadian border states began marching with their feet. They refused to be held hostage by the drug monopolies when their physicians prescribed expensive drug medications. They simply got in their cars and traveled across the border to Canada and received their drugs at far less cost. The same happened in states that border on Mexico. Now this practice has become routine.

When Ms. Pingree proposed legislation to make prescription drugs affordable and eliminate the trip across the borders, she was literally laughed at. Constitutional attorneys smirked confidently that individual states could not enact laws that would infringe upon corporations to conduct business across state lines.

PHARMA, the powerful trade association for all of the drug monopolies, used that argument in their case before the Supreme Court. But PHARMA lost the decision by a 6 to 3 margin.

A lot of wise-guy legislators and pundits had to eat crow. You could see through their forced smiling faces their worry about the tens of thousands of dollars in payoffs that might dry up.

Interestingly, the drug companies have always taken Pingree seriously. They know how much they are hated.

Dire consequences predicted – but for whom?

The Wall Street Journal predicted that if the Maine program survived the Supreme Court challenge, the industry would lose up to $43 billion in lost 2005 sales – between 10 percent to 20 percent of the industry total – assuming that all other states in the U.S. copy the Maine bill. That, in fact, is what’s happening. Many other states either have or are about to follow suit.

The Economist put the argument very clearly, “The [Supreme Court], cheered by old and sick all around the country, heartened states with the same idea, and infuriated big PHARMA, for which Lehman Brothers predicted net income losses of between 1.5 percent and 3.5 percent if discounting becomes general.”

One monopoly’s loss is the people’s gain. Loss of this revenue might even begin to force the drug companies to cut back on their political payoffs to legislators.

State actions can influence Congress

Every state should undertake actions similar to Maine’s. State actions such as these are important from the standpoint of forcing Congress to act. Congressional and the presidential elections in 2004 should be predicated on slaying the Drug Dragon. By doing that we will get closer to a national health program.

So remember: Don’t ever take lightly the efforts of individuals, especially those of a strong woman, and especially when the actions are tied to organized labor and the people’s movements.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org