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N.D. pharmacy law again target of proposed ballot measure

BISMARCK - Backers of a proposed ballot measure that would change North Dakota's pharmacy ownership law to open the door to national retail pharmacies such as Wal-Mart and Walgreens hope to collect the necessary signatures in time to get the meas...

BISMARCK – Backers of a proposed ballot measure that would change North Dakota’s pharmacy ownership law to open the door to national retail pharmacies such as Wal-Mart and Walgreens hope to collect the necessary signatures in time to get the measure on the November ballot.

Proponents gathered nearly 14,000 signatures for a similar measure in 2010, but Secretary of State Al Jaeger rejected the petitions on a technical error because they weren’t circulated with the list of petition sponsors. The North Dakota Supreme Court upheld Jaeger’s decision.

That setback and at least five failed attempts to convince the state Legislature to repeal the law, most recently in 2011, haven’t deterred measure sponsors.

“This is an antiquated, protectionist piece of law that we want taken away,” said Larry Gauper of Fargo, a member of the petition’s sponsoring committee. “I would like to have the same choices as consumers have in 49 other states.”

The proposed measure would repeal a 50-year-old section of state law that requires pharmacies to be majority-owned by pharmacists who are licensed in North Dakota – the only state in the nation with such a requirement.


The law effectively bans chain retailers such as Wal-Mart, Walgreens and Target from operating pharmacies in the state, though there are some exceptions, including a grandfather clause for chains such as CVS Pharmacy that were in place in North Dakota before July 1, 1963.

Measure proponents are waiting for Jaeger to approve their petition submitted last week so they can start circulating it for signatures.  Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum said Friday the plan is to respond to the sponsoring committee on Monday, and he anticipates the petition will be approved for circulation after some “very” minor changes are made.

Sponsors need 13,452 signatures by Aug. 6 to get the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot, which Gauper said will be “quite a burden.” If it takes longer, the measure could appear in a subsequent election, he said.

Opponents of the law – which has twice been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court – argue that lifting the ownership restriction would create more competition in the marketplace and reduce prescription drug prices while also giving consumers access to discounts offered by drugstore chains.

Gauper, who lives in Fargo but shops at a Wal-Mart pharmacy in neighboring Moorhead, Minn., said the issue boils down to consumer choice. He said if independent pharmacies offer lower prices and better service as they claim, “then they will beat the national retailer, and I don’t know what they’re afraid of.”

The North Dakota Pharmacists Association supports the existing law and contends it results in better access to pharmaceutical care, especially in rural areas.

Association President Steve Boehning of Fargo said the assumption that repealing the law will boost competition and reduce prescription drug prices is “a completely bogus argument.”

“The exact opposite happens. The market becomes dominated by the three large chains,” he said, referring to Wal-Mart, Walgreens and CVS.


Most big-box pharmacies are owned by or have contractual agreements with large insurers that will drive market share to their stores, Boehning said.

“So even if you want to utilize your local independent drug store, you won’t have the option to do so,” he said.

North Dakota also has similar ownership laws for other professions such as dentistry and optometry, Boehning noted.

Gauper countered that independent pharmacies also have deals with insurers, and that the state’s similar ownership laws don’t affect as many people day-to-day as the pharmacy law.

“That does not make this law right,” he said.

Petition sponsors haven’t launched an official campaign yet. Gauper said he believes it will follow the same pattern as in 2010, though he hopes national retailers will be more outspoken this time around.

“They have a right to do business here, and they should say that openly,” he said.

One of the sponsoring committee’s 33 members is John Pies, manager of the Wal-Mart Supercenter at 3757 55th Ave. S. in Fargo. In a response to emailed questions Friday, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg wrote that Pies is on the committee as an individual, but that the company supports bringing more pharmacy options to North Dakotans “because our customers have told us time and time again that this is something they want and need.


“Our customers know that our stores can be a part of the solution, and that we can provide the kind of convenience and affordability that is important to them,” she wrote.

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at mnowatzki@forumcomm.com .

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