FALL RIVER, Mass. - Mayor Edward M. Lambert Jr. is being sued by five local pharmacists who say he is breaking the law by helping city employees and residents purchase imported Canadian drugs at steep discounts.
The pharmacists are expected to appear this afternoon in Taunton Superior Court and request a judicial order that would put a freeze on the city's new prescription drug program.
Lambert's program encourages residents to buy drugs through CanaRX at discounts of as much as 50 percent. On Monday, the city also started letting municipal employees and retired employees purchase the less expensive drugs through CanaRX without paying any deductible.
Lambert argues that he would be delinquent if he failed to help both the city and its residents save substantial amounts of money on far less expensive medicines, which are either the same or just as good as those supplied in local pharmacies.
However, the plaintiff pharmacists - including Thomas Pasternak, whom Lambert said he regards as a longtime friend - accuse the city of reaching an illegal contractual agreement with CanaRX.
"Under this plan, all City of Fall River employees, retirees and residents will be able to contact CanaRX and import foreign source prescription drugs in violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act," says the lawsuit, which was filed last week.
Lawyers on both sides of the case said yesterday that they believe the lawsuit is the first of its kind filed against the limited number of cities and states that have initiated programs to encourage employees to purchase drugs from CanaRX.
The company works with Canadian pharmacies to provide individual Americans with more than 325 different so-called "maintenance medications," drugs that people take every day.
Many drugs are cheaper in Canada because the government there has imposed certain types of price controls that the U.S. government has avoided.
Importing drugs from Canada, both en masse and for specific people, is illegal. But last month, Lambert asserted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "will not pursue individuals who order prescriptions from Canadian pharmacies."
The central legal question in the case is whether the city has broken the law by encouraging others to do so.
"The city has a right to protect its employees and residents and encourage competition," said Fall River's lawyer, Tom McGuire.
McGuire equates Fall River's activities - supplying computers so the elderly can access CanaRX online, providing mail order applications, publicizing the company's telephone lines - to promotional work.
"If these local pharmacies can offer a better price, great," McGuire said, adding that the city has no contract whatsoever with CanaRX.
The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Paul M. Garbarini, of Belmont, is a pharmacist himself.
He argues that Lambert is authorizing the illegal importation of foreign drugs that haven't been approved by the federal government. The suit accuses Lambert of exceeding his powers.
"Pursuant to federal policy," the suit states, "only the Health and Human Services director, Mr. Tommy Thompson, can authorize importation of foreign source prescription drugs."
Garbarini asked why the city hasn't offered to waive deductibles whenever employees find a better bargain, no matter where that bargain comes from.
"People can't import drugs," Garbarini asked. "Why would the people be permitted to encourage people to commit an illegal act? Where would it stop?"
The lawsuit identifies five plaintiffs, Gordon Ashworth, Richard Brisson, Thomas F. Cory III, Joseph Rebello and Thomas Pasternak. It does not identify the particular pharmacies where the men work.
Garbarini declined to divulge the plaintiffs' workplaces. He also said he is uncomfortable identifying his own workplace.
The lawsuit estimates that each year, the plaintiffs provide more than $600,000 worth of prescriptions to city employees, retirees and residents.
Fall River isn't alone in taking the same action. Springfield, Worcester and Somerville have also urged employees and retirees to take up the deals offered by CanaRX. So have the the states of Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
Lambert, who mentioned the lawsuit during an interview Tuesday on WSAR, said he understands why the new program might frustrate local pharmacists.
He said the pharmacists are not responsible for the rocketing drug prices that are keeping some people from acquiring the medicines they need.
"They're not to blame for this," he said. "I understand that. But I have an obligation to fight for the quality of life of residents in this city."