North Dakotans will have the opportunity at the Nov. 4 general election to finally rid our state of one of the most anti-competitive laws that we have on the books today. I’m referring, of course, to the pharmacy ownership law, which has been on the books for over 50 years. The subject of the pharmacy ownership law has been much debated here in North Dakota over the last five years or so. The pharmacy ownership law measure will appear on the ballot as Measure 7.
North Dakota is the only state in the country which has a law which forbids anyone except for a licensed pharmacist in good standing from owning a pharmacy in this state. The North Dakota Pharmacy Ownership Law, Sec. 43-15-35 of the North Dakota Century Code, states that a pharmacy may only be owned by a licensed North Dakota pharmacist in good standing, who controls at least a 51 percent majority ownership stake in the pharmacy.
At the time the law was passed, it was presented to state lawmakers as a way to prevent physicians from selling prescription medications directly to their patients, and accordingly to cut out the middleman of having prescriptions filled at a pharmacy by a pharmacist. Instead, the actual effect of the law has clearly been to stifle competition in the pharmacy business.
The law prevents most retailers as well as non-pharmacist business owners from employing professional pharmacists to operate pharmacy counters in their stores. This law has largely denied North Dakota consumers access to the much-advertised discount prescription drug offers of many of the large national retailers.
Recent attempts to change the law
There have been numerous attempts to change the pharmacy ownership law in North Dakota. The two most recent attempts took place over the past five years.
Both in 2009 and in 2011, bills were introduced in the North Dakota Legislature to repeal the pharmacy ownership law. Both bills were introduced in the House of Representatives. The bills were soundly defeated on the House floor during those sessions, following do not pass recommendations from the House Industry, Business and Labor Committee. During the 2011 session, the bill to repeal the pharmacy ownership law only got 35 yes votes in favor of passage.
Following the defeat of the two bills in 2009 and 2011, the group North Dakotans for Affordable Healthcare launched initiated ballot measure efforts to change the law via the ballot box. That group’s efforts spanned from 2009-10 and from 2011-12. While the 2009-10 effort did garner enough signatures for the measure appear on the Nov. 2010 general election ballot, one very important issue got missed. The group had neglected to attach a sheet containing a list of the names and addresses of the measure’s sponsoring committee members to each petition booklet that was submitted to the secretary of state’s office. The law in North Dakota requires that such a list be attached to each petition booklet that is submitted to the secretary of state.
The failure of the group to attach a copy of the list to each petition booklet submitted caused Secretary of State Al Jaeger to reject all of the petition signatures. The group appealed Jaeger’s decision to the North Dakota Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld the secretary of state’s decision, and the measure was out.
A second initiated measure effort regarding the pharmacy ownership law was launched during the 2011-12 time period. This time around, the group struggled to obtain financial contributions as well as petition signatures in order to get the issue onto the ballot for the Nov. 2012 general election. In April of 2012, the group officially suspended its efforts to get the measure onto the ballot. North Dakotans for Affordable Healthcare went out of existence at that point.
Enter North Dakotans for Lower Pharmacy Prices
This newly formed group was launched earlier this year to spearhead yet another effort at an initiated measure on the pharmacy ownership law. The group obtained just over 24,000 signatures in just six weeks time over the summer in order to get the initiative onto this year’s general election ballot. That speaks volumes, and it also speaks to the fact that the people of North Dakota are growing tired of this debate and they want and deserve the opportunity to settle this issue once and for all.
There seems to be a renewed energy among those who have worked so hard to change this archaic law. Not to mention that, but the new group seems to be well-organized and well-financed.
Not only is the new group which is spearheading the effort moving full steam ahead, it would appear that they’ve got a number of the retailers in their corner as well. As I’ve mentioned in previous commentaries, it’s going to take a concerted effort among the retailers themselves to convince their respective customer bases that changing the pharmacy ownership law is a win-win situation for everyone.
From my perspective, I would have to say the chances of this law ever changing become slimmer and slimmer as each day passes. It is abundantly clear that the Legislature will never change the law. Previous efforts at getting the issue onto the ballot via the initiative have failed. Accordingly, the people are going to have to put this issue to rest one way or another.
I encourage a strong Yes vote on Measure 7, in order to bring affordable prescription drug prices to our state