City employees in Portland and workers at the Hardwood Products Company in Guilford were able to gain significant savings by purchasing their prescription drugs by mail through the Canadian firm, CanaRx, for years.
But Joe Bruno, president of the Maine Board of Pharmacy, says those transactions took place beneath the state's radar -- until early this spring.
"What happened was a letter went out to the state employees who brought it in to some pharmacists, and it was at that point that the pharmacists said, 'How is this happening when they're not a licensed pharmacy?'" Bruno said.
Bruno's board notified Maine Attorney General Bill Schneider in June, and Schneider notified CanaRx that it was operating illegally in Maine. CanaRx has since ceased doing business in the state, a decision that company officials say is affecting more than 1,200 households in Maine.
Chris Collins, a senior program adviser at CanaRx, says his company is caught in Catch-22 situation.
"In order for a pharmacy to provide medication to a Maine resident, it needs to be licensed by the Maine Board of Pharmacy, and the same statute says that the Maine Board of Pharmacy doesn't have the ability, in their opinion, to license a pharmacy out of the country," Collins says. "So 'you have to come to us to get a license, but we can't give you a license.'"
But Maine Attorney General Bill Schneider says the absence of language in Maine law addressing drug distribution by foreign countries is intentional.
"It's very clear in that it says that a pharmacy, in order to deliver drugs into the state, has to be licensed in the state and there's no mechanism for licensing a pharmacy in New Zealand, say, or any of the other places that CanaRx deals with," Schneider says.
That current view could be subject to change, though, if Democratic state Sen. Troy Jackson, of Allagash, is successful in the next legislative session. Jackson says he's submitted legislation to correct the problem.
And he says he's concerned about past connections between Joe Bruno, the CEO of 10-store pharmacy chain, Community Pharmacies, and Attorney General Schneider. Both served respectively as Republican House leader and assistant House leader 11 years ago, and this year, Bruno signed on as treasurer for Schneider's U.S. Senate GOP bid.
"With Mr. Bruno and Schneider, I just see this as a continuation of things that they've pushed for throughout their legislative careers," Jackson says. "I definitely can see that someone is doing someone else a favor, and it's unfortunate because what's it's going to do is it's going to hurt people in Maine."
Schneider says Bruno was not even remotely a factor in his CanaRx decision. "He influenced my opinion not at all, so there's no untoward goings on here at all," Schneider says.
CanaRx officials say their company offers mail order prescription drug sales in other states, including Illinois, Vermont and Rhode Island.